Ephraim Gabbai is exuberant. The New York-based rabbi is describing an email
conversation in Arabic he just concluded with someone in war-torn
Damascus. Gabbai is confident he has had a positive impact in toning down
his interlocutor’s initial hostility toward, and misunderstanding of,
Similar exchanges with other Arabic speakers have led to
additional questions and more extensive online conversations.
“There is a
thirst for information, knowledge about Jews,” says Gabbai.
journalist who writes for one of Yemen’s top papers wrote to Gabbai about a
neglected Jewish graveyard in Aden. They corresponded frequently, discussing,
among other topics, the rich history of what was once the largest Jewish
community in the Arab world.
The nexus is Asl al-Yahud (Origins of the
Jews), an Arabic- language website Gabbai created under the auspices of the
American Jewish Committee four years ago. Asl al- Yahud – www.aslalyahud.com –
is a growing resource in print, photographs and video about Judaism, and the
history of Jewish communities in Arab countries.
“The website is
advancing understanding of Judaism for Arabic speakers,” says Gabbai. He
single-handedly manages the site’s content, and also runs a related Facebook
page, in Arabic, where much of the conversation occurs.
passionate about maintaining the culture and traditions of Jews from Arab
countries. His parents are active members of the aging Iraqi Jewish community in
Israel. His mother’s family came from Iraq, and his father was one of the last
Jews to leave Egypt. Gabbai was born in Israel, and after growing up in New York
and New Jersey, he attended Yeshiva University.
The Arabic website
project is a synergy of Gabbai’s personal mission and AJC’s pioneering
inter-religious work, addressing one of the greatest interfaith challenges of the
21st century – Jewish-Muslim relations. Asl al-Yahud is purposely apolitical. It
does not take on the contentious, divisive political issues that dominate
discourse about the region, nor does it offer specific guidance on advancing
But recalling the historical interactions of
Jews and Muslims over the centuries is a key to deepening understanding of
Judaism among Arabs across the Middle East.
“Islamic sacred texts
sometimes lend themselves to negative interpretations of Judaism,” says Gabbai.
Given the views of Jews that may permeate mosques and school curricula in Arab
countries, the Asl al-Yahud journey faces enormous roadblocks. “This website is
not expecting visitors to have positive attitudes. We have to overcome initial
Gabbai believes it is important to explain Judaism through
the use of Arabic-language sources and the teachings of renowned Jews who lived
in Arab lands. He excerpts on Asl al-Yahud the works of Sa’adya ben Joseph
al-Fayyumi, the 10th century Egyptian-Baghdadian scholar who translated the
Hebrew Bible into Arabic, Maimonides, and other legendary rabbinical scholars
and thinkers. “We are explaining Judaism from a Middle East vantage point,” says
Online conversations with inquisitive Arabs – whom he is unlikely
ever to meet in person – occupy some of Gabbai’s time most working days, but he
finds each encounter intriguing and energizing.
During the Islamic Holy
Month of Ramadan, visitors from Egypt and Saudi Arabia accounted for some 36
percent of the web traffic. “Saudis tend to have more informed questions,” says
Gabbai. Some Saudis access the site to check on what they are taught in their
own schools in the kingdom.
The Arabic website offers detailed historical
information on lost or extant Jewish communities in Iraq, Kurdistan and Saudi
Arabia, and soon will include sections on Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco,
Tunisia and Yemen.
“Videos are vitally important to conveying the story
and explaining Jewish rituals and religion,” says Gabbai. Before Passover, he
made a short film with Arabic narration on making matzo. A Yemeni Jewish woman
described the ingredients and process as she produced the unleavened bread. The
famed Ben-Ezra synagogue, home of the Cairo Geniza, was featured in an
informational video on the design and rituals of synagogues in the Arab
Separate but related to Asl al-Yahud, Gabbai also leads a
congregation in New York City, some of whose members are Arabic-speaking Jews.
On a recent evening, he helped coordinate an Iftar dinner attended by 100 Jews
and Muslims, another initiative to create a place where adherents of the two
religions can share and learn from each other. “If we respect each other we will
build a better future,” says Gabbai.
He is innately hopeful and
optimistic, key attributes for any inter-religious work, and even more so
regarding Muslim attitudes towards Jews. And, that is important. For what Gabbai
and Asl al-Yahud are doing can potentially, over the long term, change some Arab
perceptions of Judaism and Jews. It’s a long, arduous journey that Gabbai has
embarked on. But each day the online conversations give him more incentive to
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media