“The growth of Jewish life in the Gulf Cooperation Council over the past year is nothing short of miraculous,” according to Houda Nonoo, former ambassador of Bahrain to the United States and currently a AGJC board member. “As we mark the first anniversary of the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities, we are celebrating an unprecedented partnership between the Jews of the Gulf.”
The organization was announced last year on February 15. It was formed by Jewish communities in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar. At the time, the creation of the umbrella group came in the wake of the Abraham Accords, which were announced in August and signed in September 2020.
That fall saw the first flights, and soon envoys were exchanged and many other “firsts” were taking place. However, for Jews in the Gulf, there were also major milestones. Hanukkah has now been celebrated twice openly in the UAE, and high-level Israeli officials have visited the Gulf.
“We have celebrated many life-cycle events, including a bar mitzvah and wedding in Bahrain,” Nonoo said in a statement to The Jerusalem Post last week. “As a result of more Jewish individuals and families moving into the region, we are celebrating the Jewish holidays together, gathering each Friday before Shabbat for a special Zoom where we say prayers together, hear a dvar Torah from Rabbi [Elie] Abadie.
“We are creating certain infrastructure for the community now but also in the long-term, such as a beit din [Jewish court] and a GCC-wide kashrut organization. My hope is that in the next five years, we will see more young professionals move here and start their families here.”
In the UAE, Abadie has been a key figure in the AGJC and in the local Jewish community. He is the senior rabbi of the Jewish Council of Emirates and rabbi of the AGJC.
“When I arrived here 15 months ago, there was a very rudimentary Jewish community,” Abadie said in an interview. “I discovered there were more Jews in the region. I knew about the Bahrain community and had known Ambassador Nonoo.”
But then he learned that there were Jews in the other five countries of the GCC. This grouping of countries is a logical overlap with countries of the AGJC because these countries tend to be moderate and are already linked in a group. Two of them have peace agreements with Israel.
Jews have been in the Gulf for many years. They reside there for many reasons, but previously they had not been able to organize an official or open Jewish community. Abadie said he noticed these Jews were thirsty for Jewish contact and communal life.
“We began the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities to unite the Jews and provide as much services as we can, legally and geographically, and to attend to their needs, to enrich their spiritual and religious and traditional life,” he said.
Abadie said they have been able to accomplish these initial steps and reach out to those who still can’t be as open about their Jewishness. “Now they don’t feel alone, and they feel they can receive services they want and need,” he said.
IN BAHRAIN, there is a local Jewish community that dates back to the 19th century. Ebrahim Nonoo is the president of the AGJC. When I spoke to him over the phone, he mentioned the relatively mild weather in Manama. It was 20 degrees, but it will become very hot in the summer.
“It has been a great year,” he said. “We had loads of visitors, hundreds from Israel and the US. The really nice thing about it is how the visitors are seeing Bahrain. Most of the visitors are doing tours of Manama, and when they come to the synagogue, they get an amazing impression.”
The House of Ten Commandments Synagogue in Bahrain is unique. The prayer books are also translated into Arabic, and this has made Muslims who visit see the similarities in Jewish prayer to their own prayers, Ebrahim Nonoo said.
“Breaking down barriers in terms of language is an important part,” he said. “That helps with the coexistence.”Bahrain has long pushed for coexistence in the region.
The AGJC helps support Jewish communities in the Gulf with access to kosher goods, which can now be brought via Dubai, and some hotels in the Gulf now have kosher options, Ebrahim Nonoo said.
“In the old days, we would go abroad for bar mitzvahs or weddings,” he said. “Now, we can bring a rabbi from Dubai and do an event in Bahrain.” This means Jews from around the Gulf can now come and enjoy these Jewish occasions openly, he added.
There are also connections that Jews can make with each other, such as dating in the Gulf, Ebrahim Nonoo said.“We see good improvements, and Jewish life in the region is flourishing again,” he said, adding that Dubai is a major center of this Jewish life because people come for work.
In the UAE, there were celebrations for Purim last year and a unique megillah reading. There have been Passover events and services.
There have also been life-cycle events, including the first bar mitzvah in Bahrain in 16 years, a bat mitzvah in Oman and at least two brit milah ceremonies, Abadie said.
“We can ship kosher food,” he said. “The AGJC encompasses all aspects of Jewish life, from life milestones to dietary needs.”
THE CHALLENGE today is to be able to provide these services in a way that doesn’t irritate some of the countries where Jews are not living openly or that do not allow public Jewish expression of community events, Abadie said.
That means being sensitive to these issues.
So far, these issues are being dealt with, and things are going well, he said, adding: “Of course, we would like to be able to see those Jewish individuals be able to come out and say they want to build a community. There is no issue of being a Jew privately. Some of these countries may be concerned about their population and safety and security, but I do believe it will open up nicely.”
The UAE is completely open now to a thriving Jewish community, Abadie said. Jews are welcome, and their life is encouraged, which has led to warm feelings and a sense of optimism, he said.
Abadie said he is looking forward to the future and exponential growth of the local community.
“We will continue to offer what we can for milestones, spiritual enrichment, dietary needs, holidays,” he said. “I give classes on Zoom and receive private questions from the Jewish community.”
People now feel they have rabbis to turn to, and they can ask question about Halacha and other issues, Abadie said. Another issue the community is facing is the need for a beit din, which was created last year.
“As you know, a Jewish community needs a beit din for marriage [and] divorce or for disputes between families or businesses that prefer a beit din,” he said.
The community wants to establish a school, a mikveh (ritual bath) and community center. They are close to establishing a mikveh, Abadie said. The Gulf is a good place to raise children and be part of the emerging Jewish community, he added.
In Bahrain, there have been important milestones over the past years, such as a Torah scroll that was gifted by Jared Kushner to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Ebrahim Nonoo said. Kushner played a key role in the Abraham Accords.
The Torah has been used in two important events by the local community, for a bar mitzvah and for a wedding, he said.
THERE ARE also events around the Jewellery Arabia confab, which is the largest jewelry and watch exhibition in the Middle East. Jews came to the event, and they used the synagogue because there were enough men for a minyan. A rabbi from Dubai came for the event.
The synagogue has been renovated after many years of requiring work to be functional. Ebrahim Nonoo said his father helped begin this process in the 1990s, and it was completed last year to enable Jewish worship at the site for the first time in many decades, he said.
Similar to the UAE, the local community needs a beit din and a mikveh, Ebrahim Nonoo said. The local community in Bahrain is small, so a full-time local rabbi may not be necessary, he said.
Ebrahim Nonoo, 62, laughed when he said he is one of the younger members of the community.
“If the community expands to 200 or 300, then it would be great to have a rabbi look after the community,” he said.
“If it’s so small, then we can bring one in when they are needed.”
There are now two flights a week to Bahrain from Israel, and various groups are planning more visits.
March will likely be a busy month for the community, and Passover is in April and will coincide with Ramadan, Ebrahim Nonoo said. There is kosher food at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, and there are other hotels and tourist destinations in Bahrain.
“We are seeing a lot of progress with people feeling comfortable with the status quo,” he said.