Meet Jacob Herzog, Saudi Arabia's self-proclaimed chief rabbi

Rabbi Herzog, a 46-year-old American-Israeli rabbi who made aliyah from the US as a child, thought of traveling to Saudi Arabia only four years ago.

 RABBI JACOB HERZOG with cleric Sheik Ahmed Bin Qasim al-Ghamdi, who pledged to fight vice and instead became an advocate against gender segregation. (photo credit: Courtesy Jacob Herzog)
RABBI JACOB HERZOG with cleric Sheik Ahmed Bin Qasim al-Ghamdi, who pledged to fight vice and instead became an advocate against gender segregation.
(photo credit: Courtesy Jacob Herzog)

Many Jews visited the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah last weekend, mainly because of the summit between US President Joe Biden and the kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Behind the scenes, there was also an American-Israeli rabbi who made kiddush for the participants, mainly journalists and advisers of government officials who spent Shabbat in Saudi Arabia.

His name is Rabbi Jacob Herzog, and he is a 46-year-old Israeli rabbi who made aliyah from the US as a child. In the past year, he has been splitting his time between Saudi Arabia and Israel, becoming the unofficial chief rabbi of the huge Saudi Kingdom in the Arabian Peninsula.

It was just about four years ago that Herzog, an Israeli-American businessman, thought of traveling to Saudi Arabia. “A friend of mine told me that if I speak basic Arabic, and feel comfortable in the Middle East, I should go to Saudi Arabia,” he told the Magazine in an interview in a Jerusalem restaurant. Four years later, he is the self-proclaimed “Chief Rabbi of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” and, as he defines himself, a “businessman, mohel and [promoter of] interfaith dialogue.”

Herzog was introduced to Klaus Kleinfeld, former CEO of the new city being built called Neom, which is planned to incorporate smart city technologies and function as a tourist destination. “I asked him, what’s the plan for religions in Neom? Where are other religions going to fit in if you want to attract the best and brightest? They really didn’t have an answer for that.

“Jews are coming to the kingdom, mainly for work and tourism,” he said. “Most of the expats that come to Saudi Arabia are doctors, teachers and employees of all these international mega projects that are going on.” 

 TRYING OUT public investment fund’s branded Saudi coffee at the Riyadh food show. (credit: Courtesy Jacob Herzog) TRYING OUT public investment fund’s branded Saudi coffee at the Riyadh food show. (credit: Courtesy Jacob Herzog)

He explains that a certain percentage of these expats are and will be Jewish. “Let’s say Jews are one percent of all these people who come into the kingdom.” He claimed that there are about 1,000 American Jews living in Saudi Arabia at the moment. Based on statistics, “there are about 100,000 American expats in the kingdom, so 1% of that is 1,000. But there are also Jews from other countries such as the UK, France and South Africa.

“I started looking at Saudi Arabia years ago; it always fascinated me. I had tons of books on the subject. So I started looking at Saudi Arabia as a whole,” he explained, adding that “I was like, wow, this place is on fire; Wherever you look, there’s rapid growth, infrastructure, healthcare, AI, cybersecurity, you name it. I was amazed. It dawned upon me: Who’s going to take care of their religious needs?”

HERZOG SPOKE with his wife, Rebbetzin Devora Lea Herzog. “I told her, ‘I’m not hallucinating, but I want to go to Saudi Arabia and begin organizing the Jewish people in the kingdom into a functioning community. It’s brand new, starting literally from scratch.’ So she said, ‘Okay. Show me that there’s something tangible over there and pursue it – afterwards we’ll see.”

The aspiring organizer got a visa and was planning his first visit. But two weeks later, the borders were closed off because of COVID-19. “When they reopened,” Herzog said, “I flew there and I tested the waters. I had no doubt that I wouldn’t have a problem visiting there as a religious Jew, but it was important for me to show this to the world: that the Saudis don’t have any problems with the Jewish people.”

Herzog shared that “the Lubavitcher Rebbe already said 30 years ago that there’s no place in the world that is forbidding and interfering in [Jews] practicing Judaism. The Rebbe said that if there is a problem for you to be a Jew in these places, it’s a problem with yourself and your mindset.”

He remembered his first visit as a very positive one. “Thank God, I was warmly welcomed there. In all parts of town, not only in the diplomatic quarter, but actually in the real hardcore down to earth places. I was warmly welcomed.

“It was a journey: from the first initial idea until I actually went there and then kept on going back and built up my relationship with the locals,” Herzog said. “I am building a relationship with local Jewish expats. Some of them were reluctant; suddenly, in the middle of the day, there was a rabbi speaking to them in Riyadh. 

“A lot of Jews come to me and ask me before they move to Saudi Arabia: ‘I have this job offer. What should I ask for in my contract?’ I tell them, ‘mention that you keep the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays.’ I explain to them that if they say this, their employers will respect them even more for being proud of their heritage and tradition.”

“I believe that Jews and Muslims have always lived next to each other. There is no reason why in the most important Muslim country in the world, there cannot be co-existence between Muslims and Jews: I believe it’s possible.”

Rabbi Jacob Herzog

THE RABBI is a partner in a company that deals with agriculture and environmental issues, specifically with vegetable seeds. “We specialize in all segments of tomatoes, all the colors, shapes and also in sweet peppers. That’s our main focus,” he said.

Herzog was ordained as a chaplain in the IDF, where he was responsible for all the needs of the other religions in his unit. 

“I was a reserve military chaplain for 10 years,” he revealed. “I can tell you that Saudi Arabia is the best possible place for a person who was an army chaplain to serve, since it’s the most diverse community on the planet. As a reserve chaplain, you’re basically on call 24/7. For most of the unit, I was the only rabbi they knew.

“I always had voluntary leadership roles,” Herzog said. In addition, he explained that he “always enjoys studying,” in his spare time.

Married and the father of eight children, his wife teaches classes and lectures to women on a voluntary basis about women empowerment and Torah classes. “She doesn’t teach the Western idea of women empowerment,” Herzog wanted to emphasize, “but truly, to help them understand what their role is in the world.”

HERZOG HAS big and some would say bodacious plans: “I am going to live in Saudi Arabia with my family; my oldest child is 20 and my youngest daughter is one-year-old. My wife sees herself as part of this project over there because there are a lot of Jewish women there. And also, she’s in touch with Saudi women.” 

He said that his wife “has a lot to bring to the table for the Saudis, as far as education is concerned; family relationships and women empowerment while preserving and cherishing tradition, religion and family values.” He explained that with regard to being traditional and living a life that is open to the Western world, “Saudi Arabia has a lot to learn from us [Israel and the Jewish people]. 

“They’re going through a change of modernization,” he said. “I don’t know if they know the consequences of this, for example, like opening movie theaters and other sorts of pop culture. A lot of negative foreign influence is going to come in there. And if they want to make sure that the values of family, heritage and tradition stays firm and strong, they’re going to have to know how to deal with it.”

Herzog said that many young Saudis have asked him how the matchmaking system in Judaism and Islam – of mothers, grandmothers and others – setting their children up on dates, is relevant to modern society. 

“A lot of Saudis asked me, ‘How can you really get to know a spouse like that?’ And I tell them I know plenty of people who haven’t lived together for six, seven or eight years who got married and years later, have a great relationship,” he said. “On the contrary, if a person knows that there’s a commitment from both sides, you’re going to grow together and change throughout time. You have to understand that the union of two people is much higher than an individual’s interest in music or food.”

 IN RIYADH’S Kafd King Abdullah Financial District. (credit: Courtesy Jacob Herzog) IN RIYADH’S Kafd King Abdullah Financial District. (credit: Courtesy Jacob Herzog)

The rabbi explained that the new and upcoming Jewish community of Saudi Arabia is composed of expats from many countries such as France, Switzerland, Austria, the United States and Canada.

But, as opposed to the UAE where many Jews have been living for many years and have even established prayer services or events before the Abraham Accords, in Saudi Arabia the situation is very different: “It’s only been about five years that people who aren’t diplomats or working for Fortune 500 companies can easily enter into Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Now it takes a few minutes online in order to receive a visitor’s visa. 

“There are more people that know of our activities and we are slowly turning it into a community,” Herzog said. The unofficial Jewish community that he leads now provides almost everything that a Jewish person needs. “We have a Sefer Torah, kosher holiday meals, kosher baby formula, you name it. We’re also building a mikveh (ritual bath),” the rabbi said proudly.

Kosher food in Saudi Arabia

REGARDING KOSHER food in the kingdom, Herzog said that he used to slaughter small animals such as turkeys or lambs on his own, but now it is possible to import kosher meat. “I have a list of Saudi FDA-approved slaughterhouses, which are also Halal [approved in Islamic law]. We now also slaughter kosher in countries such as the US, France and Poland,” he said.

But this dynamic and energetic self-defined chief rabbi is voluntarily offering a lot more services to Saudis and Jewish expats. “I offer pastoral counseling, so people can speak to a rabbi and ask for his opinion,” he explained. “People call me for all types of reasons, such as issues at work or personal issues.”

Herzog isn’t an official Chabad emissary, yet he works in a very similar way: He is independent on the ground and he needs to take care of all of the financial issues on his own. “I’m not affiliated with any Jewish organization or hassidic sect, which I think is a benefit in the kingdom, because they know that I don’t have any foreign agenda behind me.” Explaining the complex situation, he said that “The Saudis know that my interest is the Jews in the kingdom and how I can add value to Saudi Arabia.”

One question that Herzog gets asked a lot is “Who sent you?” He responds, “You don’t need somebody to send you if you’re adding value or providing a service. 

“I am positive that the Saudi government will fund Jewish centers in the kingdom and see the blessing and benefit of it. I hope they actually move forward with building their own Jewish institution, because why would they want foreign entities to intervene in their country? The Saudis are pretty fed up with foreigners trying to tell them what they do. It’s just a matter of time till they fund and build Jewish institutions across the kingdom.”

IN MAY 2022, the Muslim World League organized a first of its kind interfaith conference in Saudi Arabia, with the participation of rabbis from Europe. The league asked Herzog to provide kosher food for these high-profile guests. “I did the supervision of the kosher food for the event,” clarifying that he “wasn’t part of the forum,” but rather active on the side of providing what they needed.” He sees these kinds of actions from local Saudi entities as substantial steps towards acceptance and respect of Jewish people in the kingdom.

“We worked with the hotel where the conference took place,” he said, explaining the type of work he did to supply kosher food. “We had to kosher the kitchen, be there while they’re cooking, assist in sourcing all of the materials and more.” In addition, under Herzog’s supervision, there is an Instagram page with about 600 kosher products currently available in the kingdom.

Rabbi Herzog is confident that his activities will grow next year, “because there are more and more places that need kosher food. A lot of tourists arrive in northern Saudi Arabia in the winter,” he said. He revealed that there is a Saudi restaurant that may also become kosher. The rabbi is also in touch with Saudi food companies who are interested in exporting to the international kosher food market.

EVEN WHEN Herzog isn’t physically in Saudi Arabia, with his very active social media accounts, it looks as if he’s there. When asked why he’s so active on social media, he explained that “it’s the most effective way of getting people to know that you’re out there.”

He stressed that “I’m not doing it because I’m looking for fame. At the end of the day, I want people to know that they have an address that they can contact if they need anything Jewish – and that’s it.”

Herzog said he has yet to be in touch with high profile Saudi leaders. “It’s very simple: The way I see it is, I’m being tested. Because if they don’t like you, it’s very easy for them to show you the way out and cancel your visa. So if they let you do what you’re doing, then apparently, it’s okay with them.”

“Saudi Arabia’s government isn’t like Europe, where there is a State Department or Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” he said. “The way they do things is different. They test you and they want to see what the deal is. I think that over the past year, we’ve truly shown that we have value; the kingdom could definitely benefit from our presence there and from what we’re doing. We’re always ready to move to the next stage.”

When asked a few times about any connections he may have had with official Saudi Arabian personnel, he said “I don’t want to get into exactly who I was in touch with, but I think that the facts speak for themselves.”

At the end of our lunch, while drinking traditional mint tea, Herzog concluded by saying “I believe that Jews and Muslims have always lived next to each other. There is no reason why in the most important Muslim country in the world, there cannot be co-existence between Muslims and Jews: I believe it’s possible.” ■