“It is as if we were Joseph in Egypt, revealing our Jewish identity gradually and carefully, only to the right people at the right time. We have been waiting for Jacob to come, and now he has finally arrived!” Ross Kriel, president of the Jewish Council of the Emirates.
Today, the historic Abraham Accord will be signed between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain. Having had the privilege of speaking to Ross Kriel, president of the Jewish Council of the Emirates, and hearing about the journey that the Jewish community of the UAE has taken, I completely understand how the joy of completing this long, difficult and at times dangerous process whose great ending was never a given, translates into excitement of biblical proportions.
When my friend, deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Fleur Hassan Nahoum, introduced me to Ross Kriel, we set up a Zoom meeting. On my agenda was to supplement the information that I had gleaned from online research in order to build the Dubai Dash, a tour game that can be played both online (from your home) or offline (in Dubai) that would highlight the amazing sites that Dubai has to offer, and also to tell the narrative of the Jewish story and the Israeli connection to the UAE. Little did I know how inspired I would be by the narrative, and how lucky I would feel to be the mouthpiece that helps to form the words that tell this remarkable story. Although the full story of the Jewish community in the UAE hasn’t yet emerged, it will soon. And in the meantime, here are some of the most inspiring highlights that I have to share:
- The trailblazers: Tiny pockets of Jewish history testify to some Jewish presence within the territory of the Emirates in early times. However in modernity, the first Jews that carefully let down the veil of secrecy around their Jewish traditions and reached beyond their front doors/ hotel rooms to connect with other coreligionists were two couples: British expats who happened to both arrive in Dubai around 2008. The Eder and Arazi couples, both from England, found each other and started a tradition of Friday night meals together. They resolved to be on the lookout for other Jews, figuring out how to approach them safely to reveal their identity and to welcome them to connect. Eventually their community grew to around 35 people, and together they established new traditions and ties to each other – yet in secret, behind shuttered windows and bolted doors.
- The builders of community: In 2013, Ross Kriel, his wife Elly and their children, moved from South Africa to Dubai. This important event for the Kriel family also marks the milestone of the first observant Jewish family to settle in Dubai. Without rabbi, synagogue or family, but in need of community, Kriel took it upon himself to generate a Jewish community infrastructure, taking it beyond the loosely existing social structure. When Alex Peterfreund, another orthodox Jew, arrived in Dubai from Belgium, he believed there were no other Jews there. Yet surprisingly, he found himself having his first Friday night dinner at the Kriels’ house. During the meal, Kriel asked Peterfreund about his plans for the next morning. When Peterfreund replied that he would be praying from home, Kriel responded by suggesting that if both of them are praying from their homes, they might as well pray together. This became a practice, and eventually they were joined by a third and then a fourth participant, and suddenly “a miracle happened” – they had a minyan. The minyan began in Kriel’s salon at home and eventually he leased “the villa” on behalf of the community – an apartment in an undisclosed location where prayer and social services would take place. Kriel continued to build the community, while creating connections with the government, eventually resulting in the formation of the Jewish Council of the Emirates in 2019. This is now the umbrella body for the UAE’s Jewish communities and the official link to government which is headed by Kriel as president of the council. As informal ties with Israel progressed, so the Jewish community in the UAE made inroads that allowed them to start emerging as members of the Jewish faith community.
- The values: Kriel told me that the pluralistic values of the UAE Jewish community are a reflection of the same values in Emerati society. Crown Prince of Abu Dabi, President of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan proclaimed the year 2019 to be the “The Year of Tolerance” in the UAE, paving the way for further deepening of connections between people of different faiths. As a part of this, a massive interfaith compound is slated to open in 2022 in Abu Dhabi and it will be called the Abrahamic House. Its aim will be to inspire the descendants of the children of Abraham to find ways to share a proverbial house, despite the difficulties. Kriel told me that in the UAE, the sons of Abraham: Ishmael and Isaac aspire to live together in peace. “The Judeo-Islamic connection is very strong” he says, “we share common practice and a common narrative, we are brothers but we are different. And that difference is OK; it is critical however to accept and respect the difference.”
- The message to Israelis: Kriel is proud to be a UAE Jew. He believes that Emeratis are open hearted, smart and sophisticated. While there is much in common between Emerati souqs and Israeli shuks – there is a significant difference in their social contracts. While Israeli’s might be considered overwhelmingly informal, Emeratis are reserved and very courteous. While tourists are warmly welcomed in the UAE, the visitors should imagine that they are an honored guest in an exquisite palace, and they should prepare themselves to respect the hosts in that palace.
- The future: Stretching 5 km into the Arabian Gulf and shaped like a date palm, the Palm Jumeirah island is Dubai’s self-styled “eighth wonder of the world.” Here on this remarkable stretch of land, an equally remarkable reality is being shaped: the home for the first official Jewish Center in the UAE is being built. This center is slated to have offices for Jewish organisations who have already committed to move there; the center will host a WeWork for business people and entrepreneurs, it will serve kosher food, and it will serve as an education center that creates bonds between Jews and Emeratis. This home is a realisation of a dream Ross Kriel and the other pioneers could hardly have dreamed of in the days that they prayed behind shuttered windows and bolted doors. The future for the Jewish community is looking very exciting, especially insofar as embracing the opportunity to play a significant role in helping Jews and Moslems connect.
The Burj Al-Arab in Dubai is the world’s tallest hotel. It stands on it own strip of land built into the ocean, and is designed to resemble a billowing Dhow (traditional Emerati boat) sail. The exterior of the building is lit up by a choreographed, colored lighting show at night. You might say that the Jewish community of the UAE is like this beautiful tower of light situated between desert and ocean, now standing proudly, after having boldly and tirelessly worked to forge a place to express their identity. These values of self pride partnered with humility light up the night and set an example for us all. With that, I’ll leave you with the fabulous clip, filmed by the community. It represents the traditional Jewish prayer for the welfare of the UAE and its leadership, highlighting the stunning backdrop that is the UAE.