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Muscling in on Dubai’s existing Jewish community, a Chabad rabbi stirs discord

New ‘Jewish Community of the UAE’ got much press, but upstart congregation’s eye for publicity backfires as local authorities order immediate closure of its social media accounts

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A screenshot from a video on the Facebook page of the 'Jewish Community of the UAE' (Facebook)
A screenshot from a video on the Facebook page of the 'Jewish Community of the UAE' (Facebook)

It’s a story as old as Jewish history itself. A community establishes itself, and inevitably splits into the synagogue you go to and the one you don’t, as the old joke goes.

Only this time it’s in Dubai, where a young rabbi from the Chabad Lubavitch movement is facing a backlash and an official reprimand, after a concerted public relations campaign introducing his new congregation in recent weeks persistently neglected to acknowledge the existence of the city’s established but media-shy Jewish community.

It could have been the feel-good story of the summer: the small but vibrant Jewish community of the United Arab Emirates coming out of the woodwork, opening social media accounts and giving interviews about Jewish life in the Gulf.

But local authorities last week ordered the people behind this particular community — a small group that splintered off from the city’s existing congregation — to “immediately” suspend their social media accounts, The Times of Israel has learned.

Rather than do so, however, the maverick group, led by enterprising Chabad rabbi Levi Duchman and his businessman associate Solly Wolf, has merely changed the name, description and profile photos of its Twitter account, which for several weeks created the impression they were the country’s officially recognized Jewish community.

Rabbi Levi Duchman (Levi Teitlebaum)

The Twitter account, originally called “Jewish Community of the UAE,” has been renamed “Jewish Community” and no longer claims to be “official” in any way.

The group’s website is still functioning, headed by a “Jewish Community of UAE” logo in English and Hebrew.

A knowledgeable source told The Times of Israel that Duchman, in defying the instruction he received from the Dubai authorities, has angered the powers-that-be in the emirate and is thereby jeopardizing his chances of obtaining for his congregation the formal licensing required for religious groups.

Duchman, who hails from the US but has lived in the Gulf for several years, was for some time an active member of the established Jewish community in Dubai, the existence of which was first reported by The Times of Israel in December 2018.

But in recent months, Duchman opened his own community center, including a synagogue and space for Jewish studies courses, in a different part of the city. The center looks like many other Chabad houses around the world, but in this case a large picture of the movement’s late leader Menachem Mendel Schneerson hangs on a wall opposite a series of portraits of the Emirate’s royal family.

Some observers considered the breakaway “Jewish Community of the UAE” a legitimate effort to set up a Chabad center alongside an established congregation —  called Jewish Community of the Emirates — though they wondered why Duchman and his partners chose a nearly identical name.

A screen shot of the Twitter account of the ‘Jewish Community of the UAE’ before it was changed (courtesy)

Others saw it as a “hostile takeover” attempt by the outreach-focused Hasidic movement, which has in the past been criticized for moving into an area with an small established Jewish presence and attempting to remold the community it its image. In 2004, for instance, charges that Chabad was “pushing itself into the community” in Prague and deposing the city’s chief rabbi made it all the way to a rabbinical court in Jerusalem.

Duchman’s operation is not listed as an official Chabad house, and he does not claim to be an official representative of the movement.

Last month, his breakaway community launched an aggressive public relations campaign, which annoyed not only the established Jewish community but also local authorities.

Duchman did not reply to several requests for comment, nor did his associate Wolf.

Davening in Dubai for a decade

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

Ross Kriel, the president of the Jewish Community of the Emirates, or JCE, declined to comment for this article.

Ross Kriel, the president of the Jewish Community of the Emirates, left, hosts former Canadian PM Stephen Harper at his Dubai synagogue known as ‘the villa,’ April 2019 (courtesy)

In late May, Duchman’s “Jewish Community of the UAE,” which is supported by wealthy Ukrainian businessman Naum Koen, opened a Twitter account purporting to represent the “official” channel of the country’s Jewish community. It published photos of the community’s president, Solly Wolf, with senior Emirati officials, and a professionally produced video featuring a cantor chanting a Jewish prayer for the well-being of the UAE, its leaders and its military forces.

“The blessing, sung in Hebrew, is set to footage of the UAE’s major landmarks, artwork of UAE leaders, and men in the traditional black and white Jewish prayer shawl known as the tallit,” is how the Saudi-owned TV channel Al Arabiya, which is based in Dubai, described the video’s content.

The clip garnered considerable media attention, with outlets from Bloomberg to Kan, Israel’s state broadcaster, all marveling at the rare glimpse into a Jewish community in the heart of the Arab Gulf.

“A beautiful video from the Jewish Community of the UAE. They have recently joined Twitter and are a must follow,” gushed the country’s ambassador to the UK, Mansoor Abulhoul.

Wolf, a successful salesman before becoming the new community’s president, gave interviews to Israeli and international media, speaking about his congregation as if it were the only established and accepted community in the country and never mentioning the existence of another synagogue, one he used to attend for years.

“It’s a very great honor,” Wolf, 71, told Ami Magazine in a frontpage interview when asked what it means to him to be the president of the Jewish community of the UAE.

“I’m sure that there are others who might be better at this than I am, as I’m not the kind of person who gives long speeches. I like to work quietly behind the scenes. But I am very proud to be part of making history, and I hope that one day there will be ten shuls in the Gulf,” he said, using the Yiddish word for synagogue.

It is unclear how many Jews currently live in the UAE. Wolf believes there are “approximately 1,500 Jews spread out in all seven emirates that make up the country.” Others estimate the number to be in the low hundreds.

The new community’s social media accounts feature photos showing Wolf, who has been living in Dubai since 2002, with Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the country’s de facto leader and other top officials in the country.

But several sources familiar with the Jewish community in the Gulf told The Times of Israel that many of these photos were taken years ago, and that Wolf has never met any Emirati official in his capacity as representative for the Jewish community.

That these photos were now publicly posted online in connection with his ostensible role as president of the Jewish community angered local authorities and triggered them to ask that the social media account be closed.

The photos of Wolf and the UAE leaders were still available on the new community’s Twitter account at the time this article was posted.

While the group’s Twitter page was changed and no longer purports to represent the entire community, its website, www.jewishuae.com, still includes the words “Jewish Community of the UAE.”

In addition, a Wikipedia page lists Wolf as the sole head of Dubai’s Jewish community and falsely claims that the emirate’s “first permanent synagogue… is led by Rabbi Levi Duchman since 2015.”

The edit history of that page shows that references to the longstanding Jewish community in Dubai were removed by a Canadian user named ShemtovCA, a name often linked to the Chabad movement.

How many shuls does Dubai need?

Members of the JCE, the veteran community made up mostly of American and European Jews in the Gulf on business, started gathering on Jewish holidays in a venue colloquially know as “the villa” in 2010. For the last five years, they held Modern Orthodox services there every Shabbat. Initially, the leaders of the community did not object to Duchman’s breakaway congregation, given that Chabad often attracts different audiences.

The ‘villa’ synagogue in Dubai (courtesy)

Community leaders, who have traditionally been discreet and avoided media attention, have eyed the publicity Duchman’s community sought with great unease.

“At the start, Rabbi Levi was part of the synagogue at the villa, which had been in existence before he came in,” a source familiar with the Jewish community in Dubai told The Times of Israel. “He tried to take control, which was not acceptable to the original community, so he decided to go off on his own. I think two shuls in the UAE is not necessary, as the size of the community does not warrant it.”

In the long run, my hope is that there are going to be multiple shuls in the UAE. But it has to be done with coordination

However, other sources, who spoke with The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity, said that Duchman’s activities, which included bringing kosher meat to Dubai, served the community well.

“Especially young people gravitate to Levi. His minyan has really taken off,” said a frequent Jewish traveler to the Gulf. “Having chicken on Shabbat is a game changer, since the villa is all vegetarian.”

In the video below, filmed a few months ago, associates of Duchman are seen showing the breakaway community’s new premises:

Wolf, in an interview with Israel’s Ynet, pointed out that his community operated a Talmud Torah Jewish day school where 45 children learn about Judaism.

“It is very moving to see the children singing the Passover songs and learning the weekly Torah portion,” he said. “I wish on all Jewish communities around the world what we have… The rabbi is an incredible young man who is loved by everyone.”

A member of ‘the villa,’ the synagogue of the Jewish Community of the Emirates, holds a Torah scroll, November 2018 (Israel Calera)

Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, the non-resident chief rabbi of the Jewish Community of the Emirates, tried to sound diplomatic yet did not hide his concerns about the new rival shul.

“It’s only natural that at a certain point of time there would be multiple expressions of Jewish life in Dubai,” he told The Times of Israel in a recent interview.

“Although the future is very promising, the present is still very delicate. The most concerning, recently, was the appearance of a Twitter account that used basically the same name of the existing Jewish community of the Emirates. But it’s not the same entity,” he said.

“In the long run, my hope is that there are going to be multiple shuls in the UAE. But it has to be done with coordination. I hope that we can get this cleared up so we can go forward,” he said.

Sarna, a well-known New York-based rabbi and interfaith activist, has been recognized as the community’s chief rabbi by several senior Jewish leaders across the globe, including Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Amar, former UK chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and the heads of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Conference of European Rabbis and the International Rabbinic Fellowship.

Year of Tolerance: Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Community of the Emirates (JCE)

“The fact that there is for the first time in centuries a new Jewish community established in the heart of the Arab World is nothing short of historic.” Earlier this year, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, Executive Director of The Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU, was announced as the first Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Community of the Emirates (JCE). He reflected on the significance of this nascent community in the UAE. #YearOfTolerance #UAEUSA

פורסם על ידי ‏‎UAE Embassy in Washington, DC‎‏ ב- יום שישי, 15 בנובמבר 2019

The current episode regarding the Chabad synagogue is not the first time Duchman has caused discomfort among Gulf authorities. In 2016, he brought to Bahrain a group of Jewish businessmen, who were filmed singing songs about the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple at Manama’s historic Bab al-Bahrain building. The episode made some waves in the local press, to the chagrin of the Bahraini hosts.

“Leading the group of Orthodox Jews to the region under the pretext of them being businessmen and then dancing and singing in the middle of the capital of Bahrain was totally unacceptable,” a source familiar with the Jewish community in the Gulf told The Times of Israel.

“He’s very overbearing, naive and doesn’t understand the complexities of the Jewish communities in the Arab world.”

Soon, a third synagogue in the UAE

The UAE has recently made great strides in presenting itself as an open country that respects all religions. 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, and it is currently unclear who will be invited to move into the building.

The Abrahamic Family House, to be built in Abu Dhabi, UAE (courtesy of The Higher Committee for Human Fraternity)

Elli Kriel, the wife of the JCE’s president, recently opened a catering business called “Elli’s Kosher Kitchen,” which has also garnered a lot of attention, including UAE Culture Minister Noura al-Kaabi hailing it as a new chapter in “Gulf food history.”

“Just last month, a new kosher caterer launched in Dubai to serve the growing Jewish community, the first new community in the Arab world in more than a century,” the UAE’s ambassador to the US, Yousef al-Otaiba, wrote in an unprecedented June 12 op-ed in Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

Covert ties between Israel and the Emirates have been ongoing for years, but in recent months Abu Dhabi has been increasingly open about it. Al-Otaiba’s op-ed — the first-ever by an UAE diplomat for an Israeli paper — warned Jerusalem against its planned annexation of parts of the West Bank, but at the same time said his country was willing to cooperate with Israel in a wide range of fields.

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