Baking Challah in Dubai: A Jewish Community Heads Out Into the Open

Baking Challah in Dubai: A Jewish Community Heads Out Into the Open

DUBAI — Two rows of tables covered in glossy runners, mixing bowls, wooden spatulas and containers of yeast, sugar, eggs, oil, flour and salt lined the garden of a villa set to host nearly 60 women.

As the guests arrived, each received a pink apron inscribed with the name of the event in big bold type: Dubai Challah Bake.

“This is not the first time we’re making challah,” said Chevie Kogan, a Jewish community organizer and Hebrew teacher in Dubai, a glitzy city-state in the United Arab Emirates. “But it is definitely the first time we have so many ladies gathered together to do the mitzvah 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 an emerging new reality in the Middle East, where Israel’s isolation in the Arab world is ebbing. And though 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 — appears to be charting a path for a warmer peace that could herald a new era in Arab-Israeli relations.

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, the Emirati foreign minister called his Israeli counterpart “not only 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 part of this region for a very long time, we’ve 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 bonded in part 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 trickled in shortly after sunset, the majority of them Jewish with many recent arrivals from Israel who came to visit or to live.

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 short 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 landed a job selling makeup in the lavish Dubai Mall, where shoppers stroll next to sharks swimming behind the glass walls of its extravagant aquarium.

Apart from seeking jobs or other business opportunities, all of these newcomers said they came in search of an unusual experience, only made possible after the 2020 diplomatic agreements known as the Abraham Accords, normalizing Israel’s relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.

“There’s a deep sense here in the U.A.E. of it being 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 Abraham Accords.

Community leaders estimate the number of active members in Dubai’s Jewish community had grown over the last year from about 250 to 500 and it is expected to keep expanding quickly.

There are about seven locations holding weekly religious services in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the Emirati capital. At least five kosher restaurants have opened in the past year, and they are bustling almost every night. There is also a mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath for women.

“We can walk the street with a kipa on, eat kosher, host lectures about Judaism and enter any place we want without any looks or comments,” said Elie Abadie, senior rabbi of the Jewish Council of the Emirates, an organization that acts as a bridge between Emirati officials and the Jewish community.

Community leaders said more than 2,000 Jews celebrated Passover in Dubai this year at six hotels. More than 1,000 people attended one Seder alone.

Over the past year, the Emirates 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 visitors.

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

Before the Abraham Accords, Mr. Kriel said, he would quietly plan his family vacations to Israel and host intimate Friday-night dinners with other observant Jews in his home. Years ago, he leased “Villa #11,” where he and about 20 others gathered quietly every weekend. It became a kind of community center.

“It was the best kept secret in the Jewish world,” Mr. Kriel laughed, recalling how the first few Torah scrolls arrived in the country hidden in golf bags. “It’s hard to build a Jewish community and to feel comfortable as a Jew in a place if Israel isn’t recognized.”

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

Some of those early residents, who cautiously seeded the possibility of a religious and cultural life for Jews in the Emirates, are today steering the steady growth of the community.

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

In late February, about 80 men, women and children boisterously trickled into a ballroom that had tables set up with religious books, spare skullcaps and a laminated, one-page prayer for the State of Israel. A company Mr. Kriel recently founded, called Kosher Arabia and which supplies kosher meals for Emirates Airline, catered the dinner.

“We get to smash paradigms,” he said.

But critics say any dissent over the Jewish presence in Dubai is also smashed by the Emirati authorities.

Long a hub for international commerce, the Emirates has a large and diverse Arab population including many Palestinians, who reject the 2020 normalization deals. But they risk arrest or expulsion if the try to express their opposition.

No one would dare criticize or speak up, said one Palestinian artist who was born and raised in the Emirates. She asked not to be named for fear of retribution.

When the normalization agreement was announced, she said she drove to a mosque in Abu Dhabi, the Emirati capital, that was designed to resemble Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock.

“My anger zeroed in on the building,” she said. “I felt like there was a deceptiveness 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 foster personal, civil or business ties with Israelis.

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

“We trust the government,” said Alanoud Alhashmi, 33, the chief executive and founder of The Futurist, a Dubai-based company that focuses on food security and agricultural technology — areas of concern and shared interest with Israel.

“I get attacked for my opinion, but we need to start thinking about the future and forget the past,” added Ms. Alhashmi, who said she had met recently 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 expatriates, gravitate to Dubai, where unlike much of Arab world, modest dress is not necessary, alcohol is readily available and foreigners blend in easily.

There, they are laying the groundwork to support the community’s diverse and growing needs.

“I would have never opened a Jewish nursery anywhere else in the world,” said Sonya Sellem, a French mother who owns 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.

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

Nevertheless, she said she felt safer in Dubai than in London or Paris, where she saw antisemitism as more potent and palpable.

Rabbi Abadie, a Sephardic Jew who was born and raised in Lebanon before his family fled to Mexico in 1971, sat in one of several residential villas that the government had approved as places of worship for Jews. Hanging on one wall were framed portraits of the country’s ruling royals.

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

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