On March 7, 24 King David Society members (donors who contribute a minimum family gift of $25,000 to our Annual Campaign) embarked on the adventure of a lifetime – one of the first Jewish Federation missions to the United Arab Emirates. Here’s one participant’s impressions of the journey.
We were thrilled to have the opportunity to travel to Abu Dhabi and Dubai openly as Jews for the first time. We appreciated the opportunity that the historic Abraham Accords awarded to us, and we hoped to gain a better understanding of an Arab country that was willing to step up and make peace with Israel — we also looked forward to enjoying all this exotic location had to offer.
There is a small Jewish community in the UAE, estimated somewhere between 150 families and 3,000 Jews. The UAE is such an interesting country – the population is approximately 10 million, but only one million are Emiratis. The other nine million are ex-pats who are residents and can never be citizens. We learned, in speaking with ordinary citizens, that they have tremendous faith in their leaders and feel they have their best interest at heart. This is understandable – they enjoy a lack of crime, free health care, and zero income tax and there is a tremendous respect for keeping the city and public spaces very clean.
The mission was an incredible, whirlwind experience. We saw lots of interesting tourist sites – the UAE prides themselves on superlatives, everything is the biggest, tallest, the only one in the world, and newest — but, more importantly, we had access to both the Jewish and Muslim communities that make this country so unique. We learned about the UAE’s Year of Tolerance that kicked off the country’s goal of making the UAE the global capital for tolerance, co-existence, and dialogue.
They don’t just talk the talk; they walk the walk. They are very welcoming of Jews and religious expression. Since the Abraham Accords, Jews who had been living there “closeted” for years, could come out of the closet and publicly wear a kippah and outwardly observe and express their religion. In Abu Dhabi, the capital, they are building The Abrahamic Family House, an inter-faith complex that will house a synagogue, mosque, and church. Each religious structure will be exactly the same size and height but each one will have unique elements for the respective religion, including the Friday call to prayer. We were surprised to learn that for the synagogue, they will be using the sound of the shofar that will be recorded this Pesach at the Kotel in Israel. In addition, the Crown Prince was awarded a Torah scroll by the Jewish community, and to learn more, I recommend Amen, Amen, Amen on Netflix. On Shabbat, we had the opportunity to walk 20 minutes in Dubai with a group, many of us wearing kippahs (as well as one of us wearing tallis), and never once did we feel uncomfortable. We also visited the first Holocaust Museum in an Arab country, at the Crossroads Museum which was established by a fascinating Emerati man by the name of Ahmed, which was truly inspiring.
Whether we were visiting a local Jewish nursery school, checking out NYU Abu Dhabi, having lunch with local Arab businessman, or celebrating Shabbat with members of the Jewish community, we had access to people and conversations that only Federation can provide. We would never have met these people or had these experiences on our own. And it was incredibly powerful having these experiences with other Greater MetroWest community members.
I left the mission with a feeling of hope and appreciation for the resurgence of religious tolerance in the Middle East. It is always good for there to be another safe place for the Jewish community to travel to or live.