A member of the Dubai Synagogue holds a Torah scroll donated by New York businessman Eli Epstein, with an inscribed dedication to his friend, Dubai business leader Mohamed Alabbar. November 2018 (Photo: Israel Calera)
Israel Calera
ExclusiveEating cholent in the Gulf

For the first time, Dubai’s Jewish community steps hesitantly out of the shadows

The first new Jewish community to thrive in an Arab state in centuries consents, with limitations, to unprecedented media exposure

Miriam Herschlag is Opinion & Blogs editor at The Times of Israel

Israel Calera

DUBAI — One Saturday last month, the handful of worshippers were waiting, chatting amiably to kill time. They had recited Sabbath morning preliminary prayers, but the tenth man was yet to arrive, and services could not proceed without the necessary quorum. Waiting for a minyan was an inconvenience as ancient and familiar as Jewish prayer itself. But the location was extraordinary: a barely-known synagogue in a residential neighborhood in the Emirate of Dubai.

The Dubai Synagogue is a welcoming haven for Jews in the Middle East business powerhouse — whether they are veteran residents, temporary sojourners or the few visitors lucky enough to learn of its existence. Established 10 years ago, it is the flagship, and, for now, sole, operating institution of The Jewish Community of the Emirates.

One of the community’s leaders, Ross Kriel, walks a fine line between the cardinal concern of insuring security, while also nurturing a vision of a sustainable, and, eventually, thriving organized Jewish life in Dubai.

Kriel, an Orthodox Jew from South Africa, moved to Dubai with his wife and two young children to work as a lawyer at an energy company six years ago. He’s an adventurous sort of Jew who relishes finding creative solutions to the challenge of adhering to Halacha, Jewish law, in the remote locale.

Kriel lives a few blocks from the synagogue, known as “The Villa,” a converted residence the community rents, with a sanctuary, full kitchen, areas for socializing and playing, an outdoor pool, and several rooms upstairs where religiously observant visitors can stay for Shabbat.

The mechitza barrier forming the women’s section is relaxed — a low wall with decorative lanterns to add some height. While services follow Orthodox practice, participants are not grilled on their level of observance, and arriving by car is par for the course for many.

Sanctuary of the Dubai Synagogue (Courtesy)

The tale a Torah scroll tells

When the tenth man finally arrives, the congregation regroups, faces northwest toward Jerusalem, and resumes services. The weekly Torah portion is read from a scroll with a white velvet cover that encodes a story of friendship that is central to the community’s well being:

On its front, between a classic crown and gate design in gold and silver, a golden inscription is embroidered in Arabic. The back of the cover displays the English translation, also stitched in gold letters:

This Torah is dedicated in honor of
His Excellency Mohamed Ali Alabbar
Whose vision and character
Have inspired his friends,
Country and generation

Mohamed Ali Alabbar (Wikipedia)

Mohamed Alabbar is Chairman of Emaar Properties, one of the world’s largest real estate development companies. He indelibly shaped Dubai’s famous skyline, spearing it with the world’s tallest building, the iconic Burj Khalifa. Alabbar and his business are intimately entwined with the UAE government. He also has a close friendship with an Orthodox Jew from New York.

Eli Epstein is chief innovation officer at New York-based Aminco Resources, a supplier of products to the aluminum and steel industries. The two have done business and socialized for decades, and together they founded The Children of Abraham, a Jewish-Muslim dialogue initiative for teens. It was Epstein who donated the Torah in Alabbar’s honor and with his blessing.

The patronage of the business titan affords the community a modicum of security. At the same time, Jewish residents exercise prudence in the Islamic city-state, which has long considered Israel an enemy, and where just a few years ago Saudi-trained imams preached anti-Israel diatribes until the government expelled them.

Dubai and tolerance

The one liturgical text recited in English at the Sabbath service is the Prayer for the Welfare of the Government.

Kriel reads it solo, beseeching God to “bless and protect, guard and help, exalt, magnify and uplift the President of the UAE Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed and his Deputy the Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid and all the Rulers of the other Emirates and their Crown Princes.”

Prayer for the Government of the UAE, from the Dubai Synagogue. November 2018 (Israel Calera / Courtesy)

The prayer, which concludes by blessing the military forces of the UAE, is recited in varying localized renditions in many Jewish Diaspora communities. But its deferential tone is starkly manifest in Dubai’s centralized power structure. The rulers of the UAE have total control over the Jewish community’s welfare. Fortunately, they have been categorically, if quietly, supportive.

The rulers of the UAE have total control over the Jewish community’s welfare. Fortunately, they have been categorically, if quietly, supportive

“It’s to the credit of the rulers that they have allowed and in some ways encouraged the Jewish presence there,” says Eli Epstein, speaking from New York.

In fact, Dubai, a constituent monarchy of the United Arab Emirates where just 11 percent of its 3 million residents are citizens, has staked its future on projecting itself as a bastion of tolerance. With a population made up of 200 nationalities, diversity is officially celebrated. Crime is low and residents enjoy a level of safety in lives lived out under the gaze of ubiquitous images of the royal rulers. Courtesy is a core value.

Images of UAE rulers on a Dubai building (Miriam Herschlag)

“You’ll never live in a country with a clearer social contract,” Kriel says. “It’s deeply understood by everybody that lives here. You don’t offend the people around you. For example, you don’t bump into the people in the streets or swear at them. People are scrupulously careful about not causing offense, and not upsetting people and not interfering with people.”

Hopes for a more robust and confident Jewish communal presence stem from the Persian Gulf countries’ pivot towards Israel. Shared concerns over the threat of Iran’s regional aspirations set a quiet rapprochement in motion. In recent weeks, the relationship has gone public, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Israel Katz making separate visits to Oman, and Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev shedding tears on the podium of the Judo Grand Slam awards ceremony in Abu Dhabi as Hatikvah played.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) talks with Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Oman on October 26, 2018 (Courtesy)

Out of the shadows

This week, the community took a hesitant step out of the shadows, cooperating with journalists from Bloomberg News and The Times of Israel for the first time to allow a measure of publicity. Participation was conditioned on not publishing photos that could suggest the location of the Villa. Some community members preferred to keep their names out.

Since formation in 2008, the community has been vigilant in maintaining a low profile. No dedicated website. No listing on Jewish travel sites. Almost no mentions on social media. Visitors learn about it via word of mouth and the villa’s address is supplied only after a careful vetting.

One Israeli businesswoman, spending a few days in Dubai for a diamond trade show, arrived at services having learned of the community for the first time after years of visits in the Emirate. Yet, although she was surprised and thrilled to discover the community, she still had qualms about the wisdom of publishing an article.

The mechitza dividing the men’s and women’s section in the Dubai Synagogue

But secrecy has a price. While a number of Jewish groups including the American Jewish Committee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center have long brought senior delegations to the community, most visitors are in the dark, as are an unknown number of Jewish expats living in Dubai, working in finance, commerce, law and diplomacy, who might want to attend the occasional communal activity or celebrate a bris or bat mitzvah.

Lifting the veil of secrecy can help in publicizing events, fundraising more robustly, and even pursuing a dream to build a mikveh ritual bath.

Dubai and the Jewish question

Those who eventually do find their way through the Villa’s front gate find a welcoming, homey atmosphere. Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, a New York University chaplain who makes one or two trips annually to visit students at the New York University campus in Abu Dhabi, was delighted to discover the community — a 90 minute drive from the campus — a few years ago. He has become an ardent supporter.

“I love it because of the diversity that’s represented,” said Sarna, speaking by phone from New York. “You are praying with Jews from all over the world and you feel like you’re part of something historic — small but historic.”

After kiddush has been chanted over grape juice, hands ritually washed, and blessings recited over a challah baked and hand-delivered by a visitor from Israel, congregants and guests sit down to a light buffet lunch of salads, couscous and vegetarian cholent. (With 85 percent of Dubai’s food imported, supermarkets sell a wide range of kosher goods — except for meat.)

The previous week a large group of visitors had filled the synagogue (“you missed the whole salmon we served”). But this week, it’s mostly the stalwarts. A young Chabad rabbi from New York, a couple with a baby, a family with three kids, the oldest post bar-mitzvah, the middle son starting to prepare for his. One member, a young man raised in Dubai, walks into the service sipping a much-needed cup of coffee from the Sabbath urn.

The Kiddush lunch banter, argumentative, laced with affection and humor, is quintessentially Jewish. The question, as ever, boils down to: Are we safe here?

They come from the UK, South Africa, Belgium, the US. Some find the political trends encouraging, some remain skeptical. The Kiddush lunch banter, argumentative, laced with affection and humor, is quintessentially Jewish. The question, as ever, boils down to: Are we safe here?

It’s a question that reverberates beyond Dubai, or even the Middle East.

Rabbi Sarna of NYU wonders at the notion that the first new Jewish community in the Arab world in hundreds of years might be growing just as Jewish communities in Europe and the US are grappling with threat levels unseen in recent decades, what he calls “the unique condition of world Jewry at this moment:”

“For decades following World War II, Jews thought the safest place for Jews to be was in a liberal democracy. And as the security and economic conditions deteriorate, we’ve come to a point when Jews from those countries will feel like they have a brighter future in an Arab country that is safe and economically prosperous, one where they don’t feel like they have to walk behind a bulletproof barrier every time they go to shul.”

Mutual understanding

Eli Epstein is optimistic that the burgeoning personal ties between Jews and Arabs are making a dent. “The Middle East is ripe for a strategic change and I think if we have done anything to adjust their view towards Judaism — and, in parentheses, Israel — and if we can change some of our views about Islam and Arabia, we’ll have done a lot to help each other,” said Epstein, who is emphatic that change is a two-way street.

“We all come with baggage and I’m quick to tell people about my own biases growing up and how my connection with Islam and Arabia has changed me as a Jew. We have a huge gap in knowledge about the other, particularly Jewish-Islam. So I’ve benefited from closing small parts of that gap. It’s an ongoing experiment in my life,” he says. “It leads to what I call ‘constructive confusion.'”

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