Jewish Agency to work on aiding community in United Arab Emirates

Group’s chief Isaac Herzog says aim is to bolster Jewish identity, run summer camps; will possibly send an emissary

A man sporting a Jewish 'tallit' looks out over the Dubai skyline in the United Arab Emirates (video screenshot)
Illustrative: A man wearing a 'tallit' looks out over the Dubai skyline in the United Arab Emirates (video screenshot)

Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog said Tuesday that his quasi-governmental agency — along with the Jewish Federations of North America and Keren Hayesod — will invest in Jewish education in the United Arab Emirates, as the Gulf nation’s ties with Israel warm after normalization was announced last month.

Estimates of how many Jews currently live in the UAE range from the low hundreds to 1,500, mostly foreign nationals who are in the county on business.

In coordination with the local Jewish community, the organizations will work on establishing “Jewish education, preserving Jewish identity, community life, summer camps and will consider sending an emissary,” Herzog tweeted, thanking Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, the chief rabbi of the UAE community, for his “cooperation and for writing another chapter in the history of the Jewish people.”

Herzog and Keren Hayesod World Chairman Sam Grundwerg spoke with Sarna on Monday evening and agreed to begin providing services for the UAE community, the Jewish Agency said in a statement.

Isaac Herzog at the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, February, 2020. (The Jewish Agency for Israel)

“After years of operating with great discretion, on the margins of the global Jewish community, we are now ready to formally ‘get on the grid,’” Sarna said, according to the statement. “This partnership with The Jewish Agency brings the interconnectedness we crave.”

The Jewish Agency said that “a special joint team from The Jewish Agency, Keren Hayesod and the Jewish Federations of North America will be established in the coming days to work with the Chief Rabbi of the UAE to determine the needs of the Jewish community in the region.”

Rabbi Yehuda Sarna address an interfaith iftar at the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC. May 14, 2019 (Courtesy)

“The Jewish community in the UAE totals over 1,000 members, centered in Dubai and Abu Dhabi,” the statement said. “It’s the first new Jewish community that’s being built in the Arab world in centuries and is comprised of Jews coming from all over the globe, including: Europe, North America, South Africa and the Arab world. Community members work in a variety of fields, serving as teachers, technicians, software developers, nurses and businesspeople.”

On Tuesday a rare prayer minyan was held in Abu Dhabi by a group of Jews living in Dubai who had come to the Emirati capital especially for the historic visit of a joint US-Israel delegation that arrived to lay the groundwork for a normalization treaty with Israel.

Israel and the UAE announced on August 13 that they were establishing full diplomatic relations, in a US-brokered deal.

The UAE is just the third Arab country to agree to establish official relations with Israel, after Egypt and Jordan. Israeli and American officials have expressed hope that other Gulf Arab countries will soon follow suit, with relations based on mutual commercial and security interests, and their shared enmity toward Iran.

A Jewish minyan organized at the hotel of the Israeli delegation to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, September 1, 2020. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

A Jewish community has been operating in Dubai for a decade, initially with tacit support but more recently with overt backing from the local authorities, and is currently in the process of officially becoming a licensed religious community.

In recent years, the UAE has made great efforts to show itself as a tolerant country welcoming to all religions, including Judaism. President Khalifa bin-Zayed al-Nahyan declared 2019 to be the “The Year of Tolerance” in the UAE. In this context, the country announced the building of a massive interfaith compound in Abu Dhabi that will also include a synagogue.

The so-called Abrahamic Family House is slated to open in 2022.

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