Modern Jewish life in Bahrain goes back to the 1880s when Jews from Iraq emigrated there looking for better economic prospects. Today Bahrain is a tiny country with just 1.7 million citizens – it even makes Israel look big!
Bahrain is the only country in the Gulf with a native Jewish community, although it is only about 45 people. In the UAE there are an estimated 800–1,000 full-time Jewish residents, according to Rabbi Elie Abadi of the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities (AGJC), but all of them are expatriates from around the world. AGJC is the umbrella organization for the Jewish communities of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
But in Bahrain, there is a synagogue and Jewish cemetery both established in the 1930s. For the recent Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat (the New Year of the Trees), the community kicked off a project to renovate and maintain the cemetery by raising money to plant trees there.
“As we celebrate Tu Bishvat, in the Jewish tradition as the Arboreal New Year, we are planting trees in the Jewish cemetery of Bahrain, which is akin to bringing life back to those that have lived in the beautiful community in Bahrain for centuries and made their resting place in Bahrain for eternity,” said AGJC Rabbi Dr. Elie Abadie. “As our ancestors planted in their generation for the benefit of our generation, so too we plant in this generation for the benefit of future generations.”
The project comes 16 months after the Abraham Accords that established peaceful relations between Israel and the UAE and Israel and Bahrain, later joined by Morocco.
“For more than 100 years our family members have been buried in the Jewish cemetery in Bahrain, and one component of our community planning is ensuring that our cemetery is properly maintained for generations to come,” said AGJC President Ebrahim Dawood Nonoo. “We are very thankful that the AGJC chose this for its Tu Bishvat project.”
Nonoo is also the head of the Jewish community in Bahrain, and says that Jews and Muslims have always gotten along there. The small Jewish community often invites Muslims to visit the synagogue, which was recently refurbished and has a new Torah donated by former president Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
“In the synagogue we have the 10 commandments in Hebrew and Arabic, and when Muslims read them they say, “All of this is in the Qur’an,” Nonoo told The Jerusalem Report. “We also have a siddur that is in both Hebrew and Arabic. It makes them (local Muslims) feel closer to us.”
Nonoo that the Abraham Accords has revitalized the local Jewish community as they now have more Jewish and Israeli tourists. As a result, the community is planning its next phase which includes hiring a rabbi at some point, establishing a Jewish education program and hopefully a mikveh as the community continues to grow.
The tiny Jewish community has also recently celebrated several life-cycle events including the first Jewish wedding in 50 years. The groom was the son of Houda Nonoo, the former Bahraini ambassador to Washington. The Ritz Carlton, which now has a kosher kitchen, hosted the wedding.
“While I know that every mother thinks their child’s wedding is monumental, this one truly was!” she wrote in a tweet.
There are several hundred Jewish Bahrainis who left Bahrain in the 1950s and moved to Israel, but until the Abraham Accords, Jews living in Bahrain could not visit Israel.
Gulf Air recently started flying twice a week between Tel Aviv and Manama, which are only two and a half hours apart. Nonoo hopes that as the pandemic eases, Israeli tourists will start visiting Bahrain, the way tens of thousands of Israelis descended on Dubai after the Abraham Accords were signed.