Ever since the 2020 Abraham Accords normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Jewish travelers—from Israel and elsewhere—have been flocking to the UAE. Even with COVID-19 restrictions slowing access, 130,000 Israelis have already visited the Gulf country.
David Walles, an Australian who made aliyah and owns Kosher Travelers Ltd, has spent three of the past six months in the UAE leading Jewish group tours. Walles wears his kippah all over the country, and when strolling glitzy shopping malls, Emirati locals frequently approach him to say welcome in Hebrew and Arabic. “Jews and Israelis have been craving for recognition by Arabs and by the Muslim world for decades,” said Walles. “And for the first time they are seeing it and hearing it with their eyes and ears, and they can feel how genuine it is.”
This Passover—the first since the accords were signed—was going to be particularly big, as evidenced by shots of the UAE’s sunny beaches popping up on Instagram alongside ads for Seders in hotel ballrooms. Walles had already booked 200 tourists (mainly American Jews) for a 10-night Passover trip, with several hundred Israelis also expressing interest. And he wasn’t the only one: Moshe Cohen, who is based out of Spain and owns KDeluxe, was planning a Passover group tour of Abu Dhabi. “All of a sudden, a part of the globe is officially open to us,” Cohen told me, “and it feels great.”
But the pandemic did not cooperate. Group Passover trips have been called off due to COVID-19 restrictions. Walles has rescheduled for Sukkot; Cohen is planning for Hanukkah.
Just because the tours are canceled, however, doesn’t mean there won’t be Passover celebrations in the UAE. The small local community of Jews who live in the UAE is building up infrastructure—which is something they’ve been doing quietly for years, even during previous Passovers, before the accords.
While there are no native Emirati Jews, there has been a strong expatriate Jewish presence in the country since 2008, and an organized Jewish community for around a decade, initially meeting informally in private homes and then in a leased, unmarked villa in Dubai beginning in 2015. There are an estimated 200 to 300 Jews residing in the UAE—made up of expatriates from all over the world, including United States, Belgium, South Africa, Russia, England, Iran, Egypt, and France.
Alex Peterfreund, co-founder of the Jewish Council of the Emirates, reported that the villa closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, but noted that a new Jewish center is in the works in Dubai within walking distance from beach hotels in Jumeirah: “I’m not talking about just a place to pray, but also some cultural activities, and a school—a small Jewish community.” And this one will not need to be discreet.
Beirut-born Rabbi Elie Abadie was recently appointed, and Peterfruend said, “He’s opening up a kosher certification agency that will be called the Arabian Kosher Certification Agency, hoping to serve not only Jews in the UAE, but also Bahrain and others in the Gulf.” A separate group led by Rabbi Levi Duchman, now the official Chabad UAE emissary, is also certifying food in the country.
Elli Kriel, a longtime expat who’s coined #KosherUAE, is behind the kosher catering startup Elli’s Kosher Kitchen. What began as a mitzvah bringing kosher meals to Israeli delegations to the UAE who couldn’t find anything acceptable in hotels, turned into an OU-certified restaurant and catering business supplying spreads to waves of tourists. Kriel’s menus incorporate regional flavors such as pomegranate, rosewater, and saffron, a fusion of traditional Jewish and Emirati cuisines she’s termed “kosherati.” “It’s about bridging cultures,” she said, adding that food is “a way to bring people together and understand each other’s cultures, communities and identities.”
Last Passover—before the accords were signed—there were more than 100 UAE Jews, plus some visiting family members, at the villa’s Seder. Despite the fact that nothing but a barebones minyan has been happening offscreen these days, the Jewish community of the Emirates recently announced plans to hold a four-day, kosher-for-Passover celebration this year at a local hotel. The festivities will include Kabbalat Shabbat services (interestingly, including an egalitarian option, something that is new to the community), daily shacharit, shiurim, and two Seders. It is also newly feasible to bulk-order kosher-for-Passover food from overseas this year, so even those who opt out of in-person events due to COVID-19 concerns can be plentifully stocked at home for the first time.
There will also still be individual tourists hoping to spend Passover in the UAE. Though this year’s Passover group trip was canceled, Shmuel Elyaszadeh still plans to bring his family to Dubai for a sentimental visit. Elyaszadeh, who lives in Bel Air, California, grew up in Kerman, an Iranian city just a short flight from the UAE. Dubai’s feel, particularly its older areas and souks, make him long for his childhood. “I can’t go back to Iran, of course,” he said, “but I first went to Dubai in 2017 and promised myself one day I’m going to bring my wife and kids so that they can get the feel of the air, the environment, and ambience where I grew up.” The fact that they can now access kosher food makes the trip possible for him—and for many other Jewish tourists.
When my husband and I—American expatriates—started living in Dubai together in 2011, we practiced Judaism alone in our apartment until we found the United Arab Emirates’ secret Jewish community four years later. There were clues that other Jewish people shared the city—like visiting Jewish artist Michael Rakowitz’s performance dinner “Dar Al Sulh” (Domain of Conciliation), which took place in 2013 at Traffic art gallery. “You are eating from the plate of a ghost,” the menu informed us, as we passed Iraqi Jewish recipes family style down long tables of strangers. Some of the oldest guests nostalgically recounted growing up in Iraq, Egypt, and Bahrain with Jewish neighbors, sharing holidays and meals. That was the way many Muslims, Jews, and Christians once lived in the Arab world—and these were the very reclaimed platters they heaped with honey-soaked pastries to offer each other—before all but a few Jews either left or stopped admitting they were Jewish. How long would we continue to live as Jewish ghosts in the desert city, I wondered at the time.
Before the Abraham Accords, you couldn’t Google the synagogue, there was no formal Chabad presence, and kosher meat and staples like matzo had to be carried in hand luggage. Though being Jewish wasn’t illegal, having a visa stamp from Israel barred entry to the UAE. We worried about losing business and possibly our work visas to other Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
We experienced little anti-Semitism and felt so safe that we rarely locked our doors, but only disclosed our religious identity to close friends, all of them Arabs. We invited them to our Shabbat and holiday tables and they arrived with the curiosity of tourists—many never having met a Jewish person beyond politicized newspaper headlines. An open-minded Palestinian man spooned my steaming matzo ball soup into his mouth and smiled. Lebanese Christian friends came for Passover to experience the Seder as reflected in Jesus’ Last Supper.
After five years, and just in time to organize a mohel to fly in from Johannesburg and bris the son I’d soon deliver, we were connected to Ross Kriel, a South African lawyer who co-led the Jewish community. We discovered a gated villa with a sanctuary containing a Torah, and Jews from all over the world—praying together in loosely Orthodox Sephardic style on Shabbat, often just as the muezzin’s call to prayer uncurled like poetry from the mosque across the road. As a Conservative Jew, I didn’t love the mechitza or the time I attended a Torah study and couldn’t participate as the only woman present—but the kiddush lunches shared around the villa’s table with Jews from fascinating global backgrounds, and the deep connections that followed, emboldened my religious identity and belief in Jewish community indelibly.
In Dubai on the second night of Passover six years ago, I watched in amused joy as a Hasidic man rocked his body in prayer—flanked by two Russian Jewish women in revealing cocktail dresses. South African children loudly raced across laps competing to find the afikoman, a Canadian lawyer disregarded tradition and whipped out his phone to loudly tell his Brazilian girlfriend that he missed her, while my husband and our hosts read through the Goldberg Haggadah with such concentration that the chaos flew over their heads.
The diversity of belief, practice, and nationality was immense and often contradictory, but this was the one group of Jews in the United Arab Emirates, and to be a minority in a Muslim country we had to be totally inclusive or we could fragment in a second.
My family’s last Dubai Seder took place in 2017 after my husband nearly lost his life from a sudden, rare disease. My mother-in-law and I smuggled in a bottle of wine and a Seder plate to his hospital room, drawing the curtains around us sneakily. We abruptly relocated to Brookline, Massachusetts, with our infant son weeks later. In our new city there are nearly 20 synagogues and minyanim to choose from and we don’t have to compromise at all. And yet each Passover, I long to be back in Dubai, surrounded by a mismatched group of Jews who would do anything for one another despite their differences, and Emirati neighbors who believe that there’s nothing strange about Muslims and Jews greeting each other over meals as friends.
If this year isn’t the year for big Passover trips, there’s always next year. And by then, the Jewish presence in the UAE will be more visible than ever.
When the UAE named 2019 the Year of Tolerance, and leaders of the small Jewish community were invited to author a chapter on Judaism in the UAE for the government-commissioned publication “Celebrating Tolerance,” it felt like UAE Jews were being officially encouraged to share in open, multifaith understanding with Christians and Muslims. To that end, the Abrahamic Family House, designed by David Adjaye, will open in 2022 on Abu Dhabi’s futuristic Manarat al Saadiyat island, housing a mosque, church, and synagogue in the same complex, a powerful architectural prayer for coexistence.
Peterfreund believes that due to the ease which the UAE is working with Israel so far, 2022 is going to see “a flood” of Jewish tourists to the country—at least 15 or 20 programs from Israel and elsewhere. “If you ask me how Pesach 2022 is going to be, I can definitely tell you,” he said with certainty. “In March and April in the States, in Canada, in Europe, people are dying for a little bit of sun after a long, dark winter. Dubai is an amazing place for them to come. The UAE authorities have been very open and very keen to receive the Jewish tourists.”
Danna Lorch is a freelance writer based in Brookline, Massachusetts.