Last Shabbat, March 26, my wife and I had the most memorable Shabbat with the Jewish community in Dubai. We traveled to Dubai as so many Israelis do for some business and leisure. Of course, the sights and sounds of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, and the hustle-bustle of day-to-day life were impressive but the Jewish component of our experience was the most surprising, impactful and totally unexpected.
There are now four kosher restaurants in Dubai. That is more than many cities with significantly larger Jewish populations. The warm welcome we received by a number of people walking around the streets and malls with a kippah was heart-warming. I felt more safe and comfortable going around in public, clearly as a Jew, than I do in many European or US cities. However, the real surprise was our Shabbat experience. We read that the St. Regis Palm Hotel had a minyan in the hotel itself and also provided kosher meals following the tefillah. This seemed so easy to manage that we booked our Shabbat at The St. Regis Dubai, signed up and paid for food and hoped for the best not knowing what to expect.
What we found was magical. We went down to the third floor of the hotel for the prayer services. There were Shabbat candles ready to light and a beautiful area set up with 40-50 seats for the tefillah (prayer service). There is no official rabbi of this minyan (prayer group). It turns out this is the original, grassroots group that started everything Jewish in Dubai years ago, predating the Abraham Accords. Under the tireless efforts of Ross Kriel and his wife Ellie, this minyan began in their home and then outgrew its space and moved to The Villa. The Villa has become three groups in different areas of Dubai, but this core group remains the official address of the Jewish community.
There is something beautiful about a totally volunteer Jewish experience. It is very pure and focused on growing the love of Judaism for Jews living in or visiting Dubai. The week the minyan at The St. Regis Dubai had around 20-25 people, but a number of the regulars were traveling elsewhere. The singing and joyous participation during tefillah sounded like there were over 100 people praying together. Everyone knew and loved the Carlebach tunes. After davening, Ross warmly welcomed everyone and invited us to join in for the wonderful dinner.
The dining area was also in an elegant area and there was a lovely buffet waiting for us. All of us engaged in intense games of Jewish geography. We listened to words of Torah and did a bit of spirited singing.
The next morning we had a similar warm and joyous tefillah followed by another wonderful lunch, singing, speaking Torah and saying “Grace after Meals.” We davened mincha together and hours later finished with Havdalah.
Here we were in Dubai and had discovered a real gem. As always what really makes an experience memorable are the people you meet. We met remarkable Jews, such as someone who had escaped Iraq as a young boy and now is part of the Jewish leadership in England. We met a film producer who was off to Baghdad after Shabbat to teach young film students about the filmmaking industry and of course, we engaged with expats, those who have chosen to live in Dubai for a variety of interesting reasons.
But for us, our gemstone experience was meeting Ross Kriel, a dedicated man who exemplifies pure love and care for the Jewish people in a very new Jewish spot on the globe. Since 2011, this remarkable man has nurtured the Jewish community with thoughtful tenderness, an enormous input of time and energy, and is now watching and guiding this gem grow.
The writer was the senior rabbi of Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, MD for 33 years before making aliyah six years ago with his wife, Aviva. They currently live in Caesarea.