In late October, the three of us landed in Dubai to do something that would have been unimaginable even a few years ago: to visit and learn from the emerging Jewish communities in the United Arab Emirates. Thanks to generous support from the Minneapolis Jewish Federation’s Overseas Allocations Committee, we were able to join a group organized by JDC Entwine, the young professionals’ platform of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). It was the first of its kind and the first Entwine overseas travel program in over a year and a half since the pandemic began. We were 20 young leaders from the US and Israel who came with tough questions about safety, identity, and the possibility for a new Jewish community in the Arab world. Here are 4 things we took home from an unforgettable week in the Gulf.
- From under the radar to under the microscope
Just 3 years ago, the Jewish community was operating in a covert manner – relying on word-of-mouth to welcome visitors and newcomers into a privately-owned villa for any Jewish activities. Sparked by the UAE’s Year of Tolerance in 2019 and followed by the normalization of the UAE-Israel relationship, the Jewish community has emerged and is poised for unprecedented growth. Since the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, the community finds itself in the international spotlight. The normalization between the countries has highlighted what otherwise was a quiet story of a budding Jewish community in a Muslim monarchy on the shores of the Persian Gulf. Our local hosts were incredibly gracious in allowing us to get a glimpse into the communal life they are building. Lay-leader driven and supported by the critical partnership of the JDC, who places an Entwine Jewish Service Corps (JSC) Fellow in Dubai to serve the community in its development, the UAE Jewish community is a patchwork of Jewish identity and practice – tied together by the UAE’s guiding values of hospitality and tolerance.
- A rapidly changing landscape in a country of tolerance
This year, the United Arab Emirates celebrates 50 years since its founding. The country is a federation of 7 emirates, with Abu Dhabi as the government center and Dubai as the business center. The Jewish community is centered in the 2 largest cities which are characterized by rapid growth and transformation. Just 60 years ago, there wasn’t a paved road in Dubai and today the pulsing city is home to millions of expatriates and advertises itself as a top tourist destination. A fundamental facet of Emirati culture is the open hospitality extended to expatriates and tourists. Religious minorities in the UAE are recognized and offered protection from harassment and discrimination. In acknowledgment of the sense of security, this climate provides, Jewish community leaders shared that they are happy to operate under any regulations from the UAE government. With ample business opportunities to boot, the Jewish community insists that the UAE is open for Jews.
- Breaking down preconceptions
While we spent time each day visiting lauded tourist spots around the country, we were fortunate to spend just as much time with Jewish and Emirati leaders dedicated to the important work of coexistence. We witnessed an unforgettable phenomenon in the country: the growth of this community is actively breaking down preconceptions and misconceptions between Jews and Arabs. Our group attended a panel on Holocaust education in the Arab world with visiting scholars from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the founder of the museum with the first Holocaust exhibit in the Gulf. The next day we were able to visit that exhibition and see the work of Holocaust education in action. We spent Shabbat with Jews, but also with Emirates who are breaking bread weekly with them. An observant Yemeni Jewish family shared that they not only feel tolerated but that they feel welcomed by Emirati neighbors.
- Unprecedented possibility
Today, there are an estimated 200 Jewish families living in the UAE. In the future, Jewish community leaders expect five times that to come. In the last year, over 100,000 Israelis alone visited the country. In the coming months, the community will formally open the Abraham’s Miracle Center for Learning in Dubai which will serve as a gathering space for cultural programming. JDC Entwine’s Jewish Service Corp Fellow will provide support for the Center as the only full-time communal professional working on behalf of the community. And in 2022, the Abrahamic Family House will open in Abu Dhabi and include a mosque, church, and a synagogue — the synagogue will hold services and even offer a mikveh. The Jewish community is poised for a rapid scale-up and we feel so fortunate that our tight-knit group of young professionals were able to learn from and contribute to the Jewish landscape in the UAE.
We hope you’ll travel to visit the Jews in the UAE, but most of all – we hope you’ll remember their story. It’s an inspiring story of a small but passionate community of Jews working across their own differences to accomplish a revolutionary goal: a safe, vibrant Jewish life in the Gulf.
Interested in learning more about immersive global travel opportunities? Email Emma, YALA Director, at [email protected] or check out JDC Entwine and Minneapolis Jewish Federation Global Experiences. Applications are now open for a March 2022 Inside Jewish United Arab Emirates trip!
This article is sponsored content from YALA as part of TC Jewfolk’s Partnership program. For more information, check out our media kit.