Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi visits UAE, inaugurates Jewish school

In sign of deepening ties, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef spends Shabbat in Dubai, officially recognizes its Jewish community in first-ever visit to an Arab country

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, left, meets with Rabbi Levi Duchman in Dubai in December 2020. (Daniel Seal/Jewish Community Center of Dubai)
Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, left, meets with Rabbi Levi Duchman in Dubai in December 2020. (Daniel Seal/Jewish Community Center of Dubai)

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef traveled to Dubai on Thursday in the first-ever visit by a sitting chief rabbi to an Arab country, his office said, in a sign of deepening ties between the Emirates and Israel.

“During his visit, he will meet with senior Emirati officials, inaugurate the newly certified Jewish [nursery] school, and, in a special ceremony, invest Rabbi Levi Duchman as rabbi of the Emirati Jewish community,” according to a statement from Dubai’s Jewish Community Center.

Yosef was scheduled to remain in the United Arab Emirates until Sunday. During his stay, he will be considered a guest of honor of Dubai’s Jewish Community Center.

“The visit of the Chief Rabbi is as historic as it is a great honor for us to host him here in the Emirates,” said Duchman, rabbi of the JCC. “We are excited to welcome him as we dedicate and break ground on several of our new institutions, which are being constructed with the swiftness and efficiency for which the UAE has become world-famous.”

Duchman, a young rabbi from the Chabad Lubavitch movement, has been accused of attempting a “hostile takeover” of the existing Jewish community in Dubai, which has been meeting — quietly — for over a decade. A spokesperson for the JCC told The Times of Israel that Yosef’s visit and his investment of Duchman was not meant to discredit, diminish or otherwise address the legitimacy of any other Jewish community in the UAE.

Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Yitzhak Yosef speaks during Shas Party’s election rally at the Yazdim synagogue in Jerusalem on February 29, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

During the visit, Yosef was scheduled to visit the Beit Tefillah Synagogue in Abu Dhabi, inaugurate the nursery school, break ground on a mikveh, tour a newly opened kosher restaurant in the Burj Khalifa building and inspect a local kosher poultry slaughterhouse, according to the JCC.

“This historic visit epitomizes the historic achievements of the past months. With gratitude to Crown Prince, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, we are now able to celebrate a new era of cooperation in the region, and we are setting out to ensure that Jews who come to work or visit in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and across the Emirates, will have access to Jewish institutions and services,” said community spokesperson Daniel Seal.

The JCC attributed this “new era of cooperation” to the recently signed Abraham Accords, which normalized ties between Israel and the UAE, as well as Bahrain. Similar agreements are meant to be signed with Sudan and Morocco shortly, following announced plans to normalize relations.

Following the signing of the accords, thousands of Israelis have traveled to the UAE.

“This is just the beginning of the potential for tourism and cooperation between Israel and the Emirates. The visit of the Chief Rabbi, I hope, will go a long way to cementing the good faith and warm friendships between the Jewish and Muslim peoples of the region,” said president of the Jewish Community Center in Dubai, Solly Wolf.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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