UAE Rabbi Speaks of Emirati Jewish Community and ‘Historic Time’
JNS.org – Rabbi Elie Abadie’s connection to the Jewish community of the United Arab Emirates (JCE) has come a long way since he first visited the UAE just two years ago.
In 2019, Dr. Abadie led the community in completing a Torah scroll dedicated to the Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan — a gesture with a vision of fostering tolerance in the country, and foreshadowing the Abraham Accords between the UAE and the Jewish state a year later.
He visited again 10 months later to present the scroll to the sheikh in Abu Dhabi, and began to advise the community — which later asked Abadie to become the resident and senior rabbi — take care of the religious and spiritual needs of the community, and represent them to the government and the Jewish Diaspora.
Abadie, who was born in Lebanon and lived there until he was 10, later moved to Mexico and then to New York City to attend Yeshiva University. He is both a rabbi and a physician. After serving as rabbi at the Edmond J. Safra synagogue, founding the School of the Sephardic Academy of Manhattan, and heading the Jacob E. Safra Institute of Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University, he relocated to Dubai in 2020.
The rabbi, who now has residency in the UAE, is working to establish interfaith dialogue, and is no stranger to the Emirati way of life.
“I speak the language and I understand the culture, and the Arab mentality and Islamic tradition as well. I lived among them for 10 years, grew up eating their food and listening to their music. It has given me an advantage to break barriers here by seeing eye-to-eye with locals,” he told JNS.
The Jewish community of the Emirates, he said, is a historic one. The longest-standing member of the community, he explained, has been living in the country for nearly four decades, arriving with his parents when he was two years old. Other community members (many of whose families arrived in the country for business purposes) have lived Jewish lives openly, praying together without a minyan and slowly gathering people after realizing there were other Jews. Most of the community members are from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, South Africa, Africa, and Israel. However, these individuals had never coalesced into a community until recently — within the past five to seven years.
Five years ago, the community began to hold High Holiday services, Shabbat minyans, and social activities, eventually becoming recognized by the government as an official Jewish presence.
In Dubai, said Abadie, there are around 800 Jews — 200 to 250 of whom used to openly admit they were Jewish, with the rest keeping quiet. However, he continued, things have “changed drastically since the Abraham Accords with many more openly calling themselves Jewish and wanting to be a part of the community.”
In addition, tourism is booming, with more than 70,000 Israelis coming to visit since the signing of the Accords in mid-September, said Abadie. “The Jewish presence was very much felt socially, economically, and now, you see kipot and hear Hebrew in the street.”
Not only are the Jewish tourists being received with open arms, but Emiratis also want to show that the UAE is a tolerant country where religions can worship freely, added Abadie.
Abadie hopes to establish a “fully-fledged community” with services, synagogues, lectures, b’nai mitzvot, weddings, brit milah (circumcision), schools, beit din (rabbinic court), chevra kadisha (burial society), social services, and a kashrut-certifying agency for tourists and locals.
Though as a Jew, Abadie said he encourages aliyah to Israel, he is expecting that more Jews will also begin to move to the UAE, especially from Europe, where “the rise in antisemitism is palpable,” as well as from New York, which he claims has “deteriorated socially, economically, and antisemitism-wise.”
This is an important and historic time, affirmed Abadie, a “crossroads of history that will be written in books and will change the entire region towards a better place for Jews and non-Jews to live in peace, harmony, tolerance, and coexistence.”
Eliana Rudee is a contributor to JNS.