Small but growing, UAE’s Jewish community to get second full-time rabbi from NY

Beirut-born Elie Abadie, a prominent scholar of Sephardic Judaism, to relocate to Dubai by November 1, as Emirati community expects to expand following Abraham Accords

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

New York Rabbi Elie Abadi (YouTube screenshot)
New York Rabbi Elie Abadi (YouTube screenshot)

The small but growing Jewish community of Dubai is getting its second full-time rabbi, the Jewish Council of the Emirates (JCE), one of two Orthodox congregations in the country, announced Friday.

Beirut-born Elie Abadie, a prominent rabbi and scholar of Sephardic Judaism currently living in New York City, will relocate to the Gulf metropolis to serve as the community’s senior rabbi. The JCE is the country’s oldest congregation and the only one recognized by local authorities.

“I feel like I’m coming home to my roots, to the region where I was born, to the language that I first spoke, and to the beautiful traditions and customs with which I grew up,” Abadie said in a statement.

“I look forward to meeting, teaching and praying with all of the congregants and members of the Jewish community at large. I will be honored to share and celebrate in all of your semahot [life cycle events] and rejoice in all of our holidays together. Together we will grow the seeds of the UAE Jewish community.”

Abadie will assume his post on November 1, the JCE said in a press release.

New York Rabbi Elie Abadi, right, with UAE Ambassador to the US Youself al-Otaiba (courtesy)

“The Jewish community of the Emirates deserves nothing less than a true renaissance man, a scholar, pastor and visionary builder,” said Yehuda Sarna, the JCE’s New York-based non-resident chief rabbi. “He comes not only with a sense of indigeneity, being of the region, but also of internationalism. His fluency in both Arabic, as well as six other languages, positions him as a unique resource to the entire region.”

Sarna will remain in the US but will continue to connect the Dubai community “to global Jewry and building bridges of cooperation with Emirati authorities and international stakeholders,” according to the JCE press release.

“Rabbi Abadie is no stranger to our community, having led us in completing the country’s first Torah scroll in March 2019 at the Villa,” Sarna wrote to community members this week, referring to the house where the congregations meets to worship.

“Many of you remember that evening, when almost one hundred men, women and children joined Rabbi Abadie in a profound spiritual act: writing their own letter in a Torah scroll. Rabbi Abadie has since visited several times, and regularly joins our pre-Shabbat Zoom services.”

From left to right: Jewish leaders Rabbi Bruce Lustig, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, Eric Fingerhut and Ross Kriel, at the White House peace ceremony, September 15, 2020 (courtesy)

So far, only one active rabbi lives and works in Dubai: Rabbi Levi Duchman, who belongs to a rival congregation calling itself Jewish Community of the UAE, or JCC. Duchman is a member of the Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch sect, but his congregation is not listed as an official Chabad house, and he does not claim to be an official representative of the movement.

As reported by The Times of Israel in June, Dubai officials disapproved of the JCC’s aggressive campaign to portray itself as the UAE’s only Jewish community.

The JCE, on the other hand, is not only recognized by local authorities but by leading Jewish organizations in the US and Europe.

“The appointment of Rabbi Abadie shows how the JCE is building the institutions for a confident, mature and thriving Jewish community in the UAE,” the group’s president Ross Kriel said. “With the rabbi’s expertise and leadership, we look forward to continued expansion and taking our place as a valued stakeholder in Emirati society.”

Elie Abadie as a child, with his parents in Beirut (courtesy Rabbi Elie Abadie)

Abadie was born in Beirut, grew up in Mexico City and later moved to New York to attend Yeshiva University, where he was ordained as a rabbi in 1986. Four years later, he obtained an MD degree, and still maintains a private gastroenterology practice.

For many years, he served as the spiritual leader of the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue. He also founded the School of the Sephardic Academy of Manhattan and headed the Jacob E. Safra Institute of Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University.

He is an officer of the Rabbinical Council of America and co-president of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, a group advocating for Jewish refugees from the Middle East.

It is unclear how many Jews are currently live in the UAE. Estimates range between 500-1,500, but Sarna and others expect the number to increase significantly in light of the Emirati-Israel peace treaty signed on September 15 in Washington.

“Rabbi Abadie will address the growing spiritual needs of a residential community that has expanded significantly in recent years, and especially since the historic Abraham Accord,” the JCE said. “That treaty has emboldened increasing numbers of Jews in the UAE to publicly identify as such after years of living in the shadows, uncertain about whether they would be accepted.”

A model of the so-called Abrahamic House campus on display at the Abu Dhabi Louvre (Raphael Ahren/TOI)

In recent years, the UAE has 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.

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