Before it signed a normalization agreement with Israel, the United Arab Emirates had already distinguished itself as one of the only Arab countries in the world where Jews could live safely.
Founded in 1971, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is currently home to approximately 2,000-3,000 Jews. Its only full-time rabbi is Rabbi Levi Duchman, a 27-year-old Lubavitcher chassid, who recently spoke to The Jewish Press.
The Jewish Press: How would you describe the reaction to the signing of the Abraham Accords in the UAE?
Rabbi Duchman: Amazing, thank G-d. Everyone is just so excited about it, and it has brought this really nice warm feeling to everyone here.
Do people in the UAE really like Jews or are they just excited to be able to do business with an economic powerhouse like Israel?
They deeply, deeply love the Jewish people. The UAE is a place of tolerance, a place of co-existence, and we’ve always been very well respected.
His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dubai, really pushes the people to be a beacon of light to their neighbors, so they have tremendous respect for all Jews.
How do you explain that? Most Arabs we read about – Syrian Arabs, Palestinian Arabs, Egyptian Arabs – generally aren’t fond of Jews. How do you explain the Arabs in the UAE being different?
If you look at the name of the accord between the UAE and Israel, it’s called the Abraham Accords. We both come from our father Abraham. We’re cousins. The Jews and Arabs lived together very well for hundreds of years in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Syria – you name it.
They don’t judge people on their religion here. There’s true tolerance and co-existence.
What’s Jewish life like in the UAE?
We have shuls in Dubai and in Abu Dhabi. In addition to the 2,000-3,000 Jews who live here, we now have thousands of Jewish tourists who are already starting to come.
We used to have 50-60 people on Shabbos and almost never a minyan during the week besides on Rosh Chodesh. Ever since the signing of the accord, though, I have a daily minyan.
What kind of Jews live in the UAE?
There are many Westerners from America, Europe, and South Africa. We also have Middle East Jews from Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya. We just got two new families from Yemen, so we’re quite diverse.
Have any of these Jews lived in the UAE for a long time?
The Jew who’s lived here the longest has been here for 40 years. The UAE is only 50 years old.
What do you do on a daily basis?
For the past six years, I’ve been the only rabbi living in the UAE, so my day is very busy from the early morning – I learn with adults, we have a Talmud Torah for 40 children, and we have kosher slaughtering for chickens.
The community is really diverse so we’re dealing with Sephardi Jews, Ashekenazi Jews, Jews who are more affiliated, less affiliated – all different types.
How did you wind up in the UAE?
I’m from New York – Crown Heights – and I have a brother-in-law and sister who live in Casablanca, Morocco, so I spent time in Morocco where I learned Arabic. And from there I started servicing the Jewish community here in the Gulf region, and slowly the visits turned into more and more until about five years ago I moved here….
Today, there’s a full Jewish infrastructure in the UAE. We have a Talmud Torah, we have a kosher restaurant [in Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building]. So really a Jewish family can move here and have everything.
Do you have a mikveh?
We’re building the nicest mikveh in the world very soon. The groundbreaking is in a few weeks.
Do you think an increasing number of frum Jews will be coming to the UAE?
Yes, 100 percent – and we have the infrastructure for them. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed is opening up the doors for everyone. He wants everyone to come. They have tremendous hachnasasat orchim.
Is it true that hachnasas orchim is a mitzvah Arabs excel in?
Yes, 100 percent. That’s why [the country’s leadership has] reached out to all the hotels, encouraging them to have kosher food. It’s been a tremendous opportunity and privilege to be the rabbi on the ground, managing to put it all together.
Right now, since the signing of the accords, I have seven intern rabbis working here helping set up the kosher infrastructure.
Is making an establishment kosher easier in Muslim countries than in Christian or secular countries?
Muslims are used to the idea of halal, but kosher requires on-site supervision, which is a game changer. That said, there are similarities, which makes it easier.
Unlike most Lubavitch shluchim, you’re single. Do you plan on remaining in the UAE after you get married, G-d willing?
Yes, of course.
It’s been reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently called you. Is that true?
Yes. He called shortly after the signing of the accord. He called to tell us that the government is important to put things together, but the power of the communities – the Emirate community and the Jewish community – respecting each other and working together is tremendous. So we have to continue to build Jewish life here and build a brighter future together.
How long was the conversation for?
About 10 minutes.
Did you have any message for Netanyahu?
We told him how encouraging Bin Zayed always is to our community, we told him about our kosher restaurant, we told him about our plans for the mikveh, we told him that we are proud of our Jewish infrastructure, and ahlan wasalan – everyone is welcome to come, see, participate, and enjoy.