Dubai’s Jews ready for growth spurt following Israel normalization deal

“It’s the beginning of a new era not only for Jews in the UAE but for Jews around the world.”

Rabbi Levi Duchman speaking via Zoom with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following the historic UAE-Israel peace deal, August 2020 (photo credit: COURTESY OF RABBI DUCHMAN)
Rabbi Levi Duchman speaking via Zoom with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following the historic UAE-Israel peace deal, August 2020
DUBAI – At just 27 years old, Rabbi Levi Duchman has big shoes to fill. The Brooklyn-born Chabad rabbi in the United Arab Emirates has been helping to quietly build a Jewish community, which this month was able to emerge from its humble shadows.
In a quiet suburb of Dubai, local Jews have congregated in the small villa that serves as their synagogue on Shabbat and festivals. That remained a closely guarded secret until this month’s historic normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE.
The Jewish community started as an informal grouping that met on an ad hoc basis. In 2013, it developed into a formalized prayer group, which has conducted religious services for nearly every Shabbat and festival. Hundreds of residents and thousands of visitors have enjoyed the services over the years.
Officially known as the Jewish Community of the Emirates (JCE), the Jewish community last February came together, drafted a constitution and appointed Ross Kriel as its first president and Rabbi Yehuda Sarna as its first chief rabbi.
During a recent Zoom call with Israel’s minister of Diaspora affairs, Kriel said the Jewish community enjoys the steadfast support from local authorities.
“It is wonderful to share this truth with the government of the State of Israel and the Israeli public,” he said. “We look forward to receiving [Diaspora Affairs] Minister [Omer] Yankelevich in the UAE and hope it will soon be possible for Israeli visitors to visit this beautiful country.”
The Zoom call with the Israeli minister was “a day we will never forget,” Sarna said. “The first time a member of Knesset addressed the Jewish community in the UAE will be included in the history books.”
Duchman said he believes normalization with Israel is the beginning of a “new era not only for Jews in the UAE but for Jews around the world.”
“While many Muslim countries look up to the UAE and see it embracing Israel, it will change the relationship of Jews and Muslims all around the world, from Golders Green [in London] to Brooklyn,” he said.
The deal will change perceptions that both sides have had of one another for decades, Duchman said.
“This is the opposite of the perceptions the community has had growing up of antisemitism, of synagogues closing, of that gap between the two peoples growing so much over the last 70 years,” he said. “So this is a huge deal to rebuild these bridges for the whole Abrahamic community.”
Duchman has long dreamed of being a pivotal player in Jewish-Islamic relations. He already has done a lot despite his young age, having lived in the UK, Israel and Morocco before arriving in the Gulf state.
“We’ve lived with Muslims through our history – Iran, Syria, Algeria, Mecca, so many countries – and we had a great history in the past,” he said. “I felt it was my duty to come and build those bridges.”
Being among the Arab world’s Jewish communities is at the heart of the Chabad ethos. While many Jews in the region left and made aliyah upon the establishment of Israel, Chabad rabbis were sent to support those who chose to stay and helped ensure the communities not only survived but thrived.
Duchman saw the results of this effort during his three years in Morocco, where he was part of youth programs and Jewish-Islamic outreach.
But it is not only in the Emirates where his role is pivotal. In Bahrain, where there are fewer than 100 remaining Jews, he heads the Chevra Kadisha burial program and the country’s only Jewish cemetery. Five years ago, he conducted his first burial alone, which was a task that was not easy as a young rabbi, he said.
Duchman is known internationally by his Chabad peers as a charismatic leader. Together with Sarna, he has taken the community out of the shadows.
Last week, both rabbis and other representatives of the community held a Zoom call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to congratulate him on the success of the normalization deal.
Rabbi Dovid Cohen, the director of Chabad South London Students and Young Professionals, said the Chabad hassidic movement was proud of Duchman for the work he has done in the Emirates.
“This is very similar to the successes seen in the likes of Morocco and the former Soviet Union, where there are now over 500 centers,” he said. “Now, they are thriving Jewish communities.”
The Dubai Jewish community is one of the most diverse in the world, reflective of the almost 200 nationalities calling the city home. Its members hail from Europe, the Middle East, South Africa and elsewhere. Prayer books are in several languages, including French, Spanish, German and Russian.
The message of inclusivity and tolerance is what drives Duchman. “These people need a home, love, kaddish… I have to be here,” he said.
In September, Duchman will receive his first rabbinic interns, four young men from the US, coming to learn about life among the Emirates community. He hopes it will be the first of many more.
“It’s important rabbis should be in this region, see the UAE, feel the tolerance,” Duchman said. “After a month in the UAE, they take the experience back to their own community. Slowly, slowly, we can change the world.”
When Duchman told his Brooklyn-based family he would be going on shlichus to the Emirates as a Chabad shliach, or emissary, they expressed some hesitation, fearful of sending their son into the unknown.
Other than Bahrain, the modern Gulf was somewhat of a Jewish hinterland. Since then, Duchman has taken prominent members of the local Emirati community to meet his family in Brooklyn, and family members have visited the Emirates.
It is through such powerful human connections that the kind of Jewish-Islamic relations he has dreamed of are coming to fruition, breaking down prejudices and stereotypes and building meaningful dialogue and connection.
Life has changed greatly. In those early years, Duchman would discreetly wear his kippa forward on his head when in public, which, coupled with his traditional hassidic beard, allowed him to pass more as Laith (an Arabic name) than Levi.
Now, The K Kitchen, a kosher catering company in Dubai, can be called Elli’s Kosher Kitchen; in the Armani Hotel in the world’s tallest tower, the Burj Khalifa, there is an Instagram account called @kosherdubai; and kosher wine has just been given the green light to be imported to the Emirates. Emirates Airline has kosher food provided by Chabad of Thailand.
This is just the beginning. An Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi, slated for completion in 2022, will house a mosque, church and synagogue, which is said to be the most expensive synagogue ever built.
The community’s newfound freedom has been patiently awaited for some time. It was announced last year that Israel would have a pavilion at Expo 2020 – now postponed until 2021. Israeli athletes have been allowed to compete in the UAE capital.
Solly Wolf, one of the leaders of the local Jewish community, has been in the Emirates for 20 years after first coming via his connections with the country’s rulers, to whom he sold textiles. The peace accord was unique, he said, because unlike other Arab countries, there are no memories of war between Israel and the UAE.
“Here, it was only a media and political ‘war,’” Wolf said. There is much scope for the community to grow now, not only attracting business, tourism and scientific and technical collaboration, but a genuine sense of its becoming a destination for Jews to feel safe, he said.
“It’s not been an easy process,” Wolf said. “But now, I can imagine that within the next few years, the community will grow in the thousands.”