DUBAI – From wedding photographers in Israel to restaurateurs in Dubai, life has changed overnight for 25-year-olds Elroi Worcman and Avichai Kadosh.
The two friends have opened Dubai’s first Israeli restaurant, Mul Hayam, a kosher concept with views of the iconic Burj Al Arab. It really is opposite the sea, as its Hebrew name suggests, set in a small fishing port along the picturesque Dubai coastline.
Worcman, from Beersheba, first came to Dubai in November on one of the first direct flights, on Flydubai. As he was in his 24-hour quarantine awaiting his PCR test results, he tuned in to the news only to hear of threats to Israelis holidaying in the Gulf city in the wake of the Abraham Accords.
“If you’d have told me back then that I would be opening a Kosher restaurant and changing my life to be here in Dubai, I wouldn’t have believed you,” said Worcman, on his first visit to an Arab country. “I was wondering then what I was doing, so it’s a huge transformation. Even now, it feels like a dream.”
For Kadosh, the change has been equally as surreal. From his home in Kiryat Arba, near Hebron, the move would have seemed absurd just a few months ago, and even now his friends and family find it hard to comprehend his living in the once hostile nation.
The Orthodox Jew visited Dubai in December with his family, and like Worcman, felt there was a lack of good quality, affordable kosher food. Some small catering operations now run in the city, and there is a kosher restaurant in the Armani hotel, but it remains over priced and low standard.
So with a combination of luck and Israeli chutzpah, the two have accomplished what dozens had been trying to do before they even arrived.
“When we went to the Chabad house and told them we needed them to supervise the restaurant because we were opening an Israeli restaurant, they said we were maybe the 100th person or more to come and tell them that,” smiled Kadosh.
The difference was that they were the first to find local partners to help get them started, and were ready to launch. It has still taken some special friendships to get around the procedures, which are in the process of changing in the wake of the normalization agreement announced on August 13. Banks are yet to set up, and visas for Israelis still to be processed, but as is the Israeli way, the two young men have found solutions.
The two Israelis see the restaurant as a lighthouse, a beacon of hope to bring people together. The chef, who is Pakistani, prays on Friday before returning to cook Shabbat dinners. One of their most supportive friends is a Palestinian, and now that they have Emirati business partners, the hope is to have more Arabs working with them too.
Worcman and Kadosh both wear their kippot openly in the streets, and so far have had nothing but warm welcomes from all those who discover they are Israeli, including a Pakistani uber driver who could recite Torah. It is a long way from the fear they would have felt in an Arab country 10 or 15 years ago, they say.
“People in the beginning were looking at us with curiosity,” says Kadosh, “but we never felt any sense of fear. In fact, we were made to feel very welcome.”
It has not been easy to source the kosher ingredients they needed, unlike in cities like New York where the items are immediately available, but slowly things are changing. Certified under the Emirates Agency for Kosher Certification, the restaurant already boasts a wide menu including Shakshouka, baked salmon, humus with eggs, and Israeli favorites such as lemon and mint juice.
The fortune to have befallen them has not gone unnoticed, and friends back home – just coming out of what has been an oppressive year of lockdowns – are cheering them on.
“Friends in Israel see this and they’re amazed, because most of them just left the army and are doing basic jobs and earning some money, planning what to study and what to do,” said Kadosh. “Suddenly they see their friend who was studying with them in the same class opening the first Israeli place in Dubai and hosting some very important people, making history. They are very impressed and supportive.”
There is a sense of responsibility on the mature young men’s shoulders, aware that they are ambassadors for a misunderstood people who for decades have been badly portrayed around the region and wider world. Moreover, they have faced several media reports of Israelis behaving badly in the city since travel opened in November.
“Most of the mess going on around the world between people is miscommunication, and nowadays, when we can actually meet with these people, we can start breaking down these barriers,” said Worcman.
The beauty of Dubai, with its almost 200 nationalities working and living together, is that these bridges can be built day to day.
“It’s our dream to meet with Iranians, Iraqis, and as many people from this region as we can, and show them that all we want is peace,” said Kadosh.