UAE Jewish community gears up for Purim and 24-hour megillah reading

“Purim has poignant relevance for Jews of the Diaspora. At times we hide our identities and at other times we reveal and assert that we are Jewish."

The Gulf-Israel Women's Forum brings children draped in the flags of Bahrain, Israel and the UAE to Jerusalem's Old City.  (photo credit: ISRAEL HADARI)
The Gulf-Israel Women's Forum brings children draped in the flags of Bahrain, Israel and the UAE to Jerusalem's Old City.
(photo credit: ISRAEL HADARI)
Across the Gulf states, from Kuwait to Oman, Jews are preparing for a Purim unlike any other they have ever had.
The Association of Gulf Jewish Communities is hosting a virtual Purim event on Thursday, February 25. It is the first of its kind and the first since the founding of the AGJC this month. It is also taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic, giving it added value and resonance.
There are hundreds of Jews across the Gulf states, but many of them have had no organized communal public activities until recently, due to a variety of reasons.
In recent years, however, the Jewish community of Bahrain, which dates from the 19th century, and that of the United Arab Emirates have been more vocal. This was boosted by the Abraham Accords, which led to 130,000 Israelis visiting Dubai and large public Hanukkah events in 2020.
There are Jews who also reside in the Gulf and are in the US military or large, multinational companies. Now, everyone in the Gulf and around the world can participate in the virtual Purim event that will take place at 7:30 p.m. in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and 8:30 p.m. in Oman and the UAE, due to their different time zones.
The megillah (Scroll of Esther) reading will be done by Rabbi Dr. Elie Abadie, with a keynote speech by Dr. Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the King Hamad Global Center for Peaceful Coexistence.
“This historic event is important because, for the first time, the Jewish communities of the six GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries will celebrate Purim together,” said former Bahraini ambassador to the US Houda Nonoo, who has been increasingly active on social media promoting the event, and is one of the leading lights of the Gulf today and a key voice discussing the Jewish community.
“When we began creating the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities, our vision was to create a people-to-people network of Jews in the Gulf who are developing Jewish life in the region,” she said. “With this in mind, it was important for us to kick off with an event right away – and what better time to do so than for Purim?
“AS WE PREPARED for this event, it was very important to us that we incorporate elements of interfaith and coexistence, which is what makes the Gulf so unique and special,” Nonoo said. “We are honored that H.E. Dr. Sh. Khalid bin Khalifa Al Khalifa will be giving the keynote speech,” she said.
She also noted that famed Emirati calligraphy artist Thoufeek Zakriya will create a piece of Purim artwork live, and together with friends from around the world, the Jewish communities of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will all join Rabbi Abadie for a live reading of the megillah.
Across the Gulf, many are excited. Michael Sussman, a businessman currently in Dubai and CEO of Sussman Corporate Security, said that it is a real historic opportunity to participate in this virtual Purim.
“It is the first time in history where representatives of the Jewish communities from across the Gulf will hear the Book of Esther being read together – it is the founding of something new,” he said.
“In the early days of the State of Israel, people had to be physically present to experience its creation,” Sussman said. “In the case of the GCC, people just need to click a button and can participate from their homes, wherever they are in the world. This is a very exciting time for world Jewry.”
In the United Arab Emirates a 24-hour megillah reading is planned, according to Rabbi Levi Duchman of the UAE Jewish Community Center. There are 12 rabbis who will read Megillat Esther on the holiday this week.
“We will be doing different events of less than 10 people each, keeping to UAE COVID guidelines,” he said.
There are many events planned with different groups involved. In a statement by the Jewish Council of the Emirates before Purim, Ross Kriel, its president, noted that “many readings of Megillat Esther will occur this year in Dubai and in the UAE – in person and through zoom. This is the 10th year that the Jewish Council of the Emirates has arranged Purim readings and celebrated the festival in Dubai. Notwithstanding the restrictions of COVID, we prepare for Purim with continued optimism and commitment to building Jewish communal life in the UAE.
“Purim has poignant relevance for Jews of the Diaspora. At times we hide our identities, and at other times we reveal and assert that we are Jewish. Here in the UAE, our Jewish identity is directly relevant to the UAE’s social project which celebrates and supports religious pluralism. Our revealed presence is a wonderful sign that peaceful coexistence and harmony here in the UAE are a reality.
“In a deeper sense, the work of the Jewish Council of the Emirates and the presence of our Jewish community in the UAE initiates a profoundly hopeful new chapter for the Jewish people. Like Megillat Esther, it demonstrates the surprising and ultimately positive and redemptive course of Jewish history,” said Kriel.
IN OMAN, the local director of the AGJC, who asked to go by the initials M.K., is looking forward to the event. “This is important because the sharing of festivals and religious holidays highlights the importance of connecting Jewish life to Jews all over the world. The celebration of Purim is especially important for Jewish children, as their direct participation in the festivities with costumes and in the reading of the megillah is essential.”
“This event is important because, for so many years, the Jewish communities and individuals in the Gulf would celebrate the holidays on their own. But through the AGJC, we are now able to celebrate as the broader Jewish communities of the Gulf,” said association president Ebrahim Daud Nonoo.
“We can read the megillah together and celebrate the holiday of Purim together. We are part of something much larger now, and it’s very exciting,” he said.
Alex Peterfreund, the board member representing the Jewish community of the Emirates at the AGJC, also describes how different this Purim is.
“The pandemic that is now entering its second year has caused a lot of damage,” he said. “People more than ever need some positive news. One of the positive effects of the weekly pre-Kabbalat Shabbat [welcoming the Shabbat] Zooms of the Jewish Council of the Emirates is that it has brought together the Jewish communities of the Gulf.
“I see the creation of the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities as a direct result,” Peterfreund said. “The Purim Zoom of the AGJC will bring a message of peace and love that is so needed in those difficult times.”
People from around the Gulf and the world are invited to join the event. They can register online for the limited available space.