Baking Challah in Dubai: A Jewish community goes out into the open

DUBAI – Two rows of tables covered with shiny rails, mixing bowls, wooden spatulas and containers with yeast, sugar, eggs, oil, flour and salt stood along the garden of a villa with room for almost 60 women.

When guests arrived, each received a pink apron with the name of the event in large bold: Dubai Challah Bake.

“This is not the first time we are doing challah,” said Chevie Kogan, a Jewish community organizer and Hebrew teacher in Dubai, a glittering city-state in the United Arab Emirates. “But this is definitely the first time we have so many ladies gathered to perform the mitzva of our precious challah.”

While Jews have long lived and worked comfortably in Dubai, they kept their religious expression mostly quiet. But in the two years since the United Arab Emirates normalized relations with Israel, the Jewish community in this Persian Gulf emirate has grown significantly and felt freer than ever to express its traditions and religious identity.

It is one of the many signs of a new reality in the Middle East, where Israel’s isolation in the Arab world is ebbing away. And while the United Arab Emirates was not the first Arab country to normalize relations, the oil-rich state – a leading political force in the Middle East – seems to be paving the way for a warmer peace that could herald a new era in Arab-Israeli relationship.

At a recent Middle East summit, where top diplomats from the United States, Israel and four Arab countries met for the first time on Israeli soil, Emirati’s foreign minister called his Israeli counterpart “not just a partner” but a friend. He lamented decades of lost opportunities and celebrated how 300,000 Israelis had visited the Emirates in the past year and a half.

“Although Israel has been a part of this region for a very long time, we have not known each other,” the minister, Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, said at the meeting. “So it’s time to catch up, to build on a stronger relationship.”

The two countries have in part linked ties over security concerns and their shared view of Iran as a threat.

But even before the summit, the challah baking party in Dubai in late February was one of many fruits of this warming relationship. The guests seeped in shortly after sunset, most of them Jewish with many newly arrived from Israel who came to visit or stay.

Like Adi Levi, 38, who moved with her husband and three sons from the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon just over a year ago. Or Avital Schneller, 37, who came on a brief visit from Tel Aviv last year, then stayed to start a tourism business.

Another guest, Iska Hajeje, 24, said she had left her Orthodox Jewish family back in the Israeli city of Netanya and got a job selling makeup in the lavish Dubai Mall, where shoppers stroll next to sharks who swims behind the glass walls of its extravagant aquarium. .

Aside from looking for jobs or other business opportunities, all of these newcomers said they came in search of an unusual experience, first made possible by the 2020 diplomatic agreements known as the Abraham Agreement, which normalize Israel’s relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.

“There’s a deep sense here in the UAE that it’s like a social experiment, something that is very forward-looking and progressive,” said Ross Kriel, a South African constitutional lawyer who moved to Dubai from Johannesburg with his wife and children in 2013. He recalled the discreet life he had led there as an observant Jew before the Abrahamic covenant.

Community leaders estimate that the number of active members in Dubai’s Jewish community has grown over the past year from around 250 to 500, and it is expected to continue to grow rapidly.

There are about seven places that hold weekly worship services in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the capital of the Emirates. At least five kosher restaurants have opened in the past year and they are busy almost every night. There is also a mikva, or Jewish ritual bath for women.

“We can walk the streets with a kipa on, eat kosher, give lectures on Judaism and get into any place we want without seeing or commenting,” said Elie Abadie, senior rabbi of the Jewish Council of the Emirates, a organization that acts as a bridge between Emirati officials and the Jewish community.

Community leaders said more than 2,000 Jews celebrated Easter in Dubai this year at six hotels. More than 1,000 people participated in a Seder alone.

Over the past year, the Emirates has welcomed Israeli officials and business delegations, announced a $ 10 billion fund aimed at investing in Israel, increased bilateral trade, received Jewish artists and musicians, and opened its doors to more than 200,000 Israeli visitor.

In a region where many remain hostile to Israel because of its treatment of Palestinians, the daring overthrow is at once controversial and consequential, and some say hopeful.

Before the Abraham agreement, Mr. Kriel said, he would quietly plan his family vacations to Israel and host intimate Friday dinners with other attentive Jews in his home. Years ago he rented “Villa # 11” where he and about 20 others gathered quietly every weekend. It became a kind of assembly hall.

“It was the best-kept secret in the Jewish world,” laughed Mr. Kriel, remembering how the first few Torah scrolls arrived in the country tucked away in golf bags. “It is difficult to build a Jewish community and feel comfortable as a Jew in a place if Israel is not recognized.”

It was at a time when Israelis could not travel to the Emirates unless they had dual citizenship and another passport. But Jews from other countries, like the many other foreigners in Dubai, could live safely there and work without problems.

Some of the early inhabitants, who cautiously saw the possibility of a religious and cultural life for Jews in the Emirates, today control the steady growth of society.

Mr. Kriel now leads a regular service at the distinguished St. Regis Hotel on Palm Jumeirah Island in Dubai – a palm-shaped man-made island filled with mansions.

At the end of February, about 80 men, women, and children licked noisily into a ballroom that had tables set up with religious books, extra skullcaps, and a laminated one-sided prayer for the state of Israel. A company recently founded by Mr Kriel, called Kosher Arabia, which delivers kosher meals to Emirates Airline, hosted the dinner.

“We’re going to shatter paradigms,” he said.

But critics say any disagreement over the Jewish presence in Dubai has also been shattered by the emirate authorities.

The Emirates has long been a hub for international trade and has a large and diverse Arab population, including many Palestinians, who reject the 2020 standardization agreements. But they risk arrest or deportation if they try to express their opposition.

No one would dare to criticize or say no, said a Palestinian artist born and raised in the Emirates. She asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.

When the normalization agreement was announced, she said she was driving to a mosque in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the Emirates, designed to resemble the Rock Dome of Jerusalem.

“My anger settled on the building,” she said. “I felt there was a fraud there, a desire to claim ownership of this Islamic icon while ignoring the Palestinians.”

Her sentiments were echoed by others, including Egyptians and Jordanians, whose countries signed peace treaties with Israel long ago but remained reluctant to promote personal, civil or business ties with Israelis.

But some Arabs, including the emirates of Dubai, expressed enthusiasm for change and a resounding sense of confidence in the country’s leadership, which they say has a documented record and a picky vision of building a modern, strong and tolerant state.

“We trust the government,” said Alanoud Alhashmi, 33, CEO and founder of The Futurist, a Dubai-based company focusing on food security and agricultural technology – areas of concern and common interest with Israel.

“I’m being attacked for my opinion, but we need to start thinking about the future and forgetting the past,” Ms. added. Alhashmi, who said she had recently met with Israeli businessmen. “There will be no such thing as a Palestinian cause if we run out of food and water.”

Most Jews in the Emirates, like many Western foreigners, go to Dubai, where unlike much of the Arab world, modest attire is not necessary, alcohol is readily available, and foreigners mingle easily.

There, they lay the groundwork to support society’s diverse and growing needs.

“I would never have opened a Jewish kindergarten anywhere else in the world,” said Sonya Sellem, a French mother who owns the Mini Miracles and an adjacent community center, which is a hub for Jewish events.

The nursery enrolled its first group of about 20 children this year and plans to open two more classes next year. It also offers a Hebrew school for about 60 other children on Sundays.

“Of course there are people who are not happy,” Ms Sellem said.

Nevertheless, she said she felt more secure in Dubai than in London or Paris, where she saw anti-Semitism as more potent and tangible.

Rabbi Abadie, a Sephardic Jew born and raised in Lebanon before his family fled to Mexico in 1971, sat in one of several residential villas approved by the government as places of worship for Jews. On one wall hung framed portraits of the country’s reigning royals.

“There has not been a real Jewish presence in an Arab country, let alone building a new society,” he said, adding that this could change the face of the entire region.

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