DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (JTA) — As part of a historic trip through the United Arab Emirates, the chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel gave his Orthodox certification to the Jewish community center here, a fledgling synagogue in Abu Dhabi and other Jewish institutions, helping to mark a new era of religious Jewish life in the country that recently struck a normalization agreement with Israel.
In a symbolic gesture, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef helped the Dubai center start writing a Torah scroll on Saturday night following the Sabbath and invested Rabbi Levi Duchman as the community’s leader.
“The survival of a Jewish community depends on its adherence to Torah values and Torah learning,” Yosef told the approximately 80 community members in attendance.
Referring to Duchman, he said, “The Jewish community in the Emirates is fortunate to have a rabbi that not only teaches Torah, but is working to grow the community and its institutions.”
The ceremony included special prayers in Hebrew, English and Arabic, while Yosef also expressed his appreciation for the UAE government. The Emirates, a collection of seven oil-rich cities in the Persian Gulf, had not diplomatically recognized Israel as a state before August, when the two nations signed an accord opening up formal relations, trade and tourism. Since then, over 50,000 Israelis have traveled to the country.
Before the accords with the UAE and other Arab countries that followed suit, including Sudan and Morocco, Israel had formal relations in the region only with Egypt and Jordan.
“Dubai has already seen a wave of Israelis visiting since the Abraham Accords, and this is just the beginning of the potential for tourism and cooperation between Israel and the Emirates,” said Solly Wolf, the president of the Dubai center.
At the ceremony on Saturday, Yosef also gave his certification to the Beit Tefillah Synagogue in the capital city of Abu Dhabi, which had its license approved in September and is searching for a suitable location to open.
“We are now entering a new stage of planning and growth, not only for the resident community, but also for the many Israelis who come to visit,” said Daniel Seal, a spokesman for the Abu Dhabi community and Beit Tefillah board member. “It’s an exciting time for the community, and I look forward to working with Rabbi Duchman on the many projects we have planned.”
Duchman, who has been in the UAE for six years, said, “We have been waiting for this occasion for years to be able to sit as a community and get recognition.” Addressing the gathering, the rabbi said that he and others were working on building the Jewish community in all seven Emirates.
Seal estimated that about 2,000 Jews live in the UAE.
“We do not have an exact number because they have never been counted,” he said.
For Andreas Gulya, a German Jew who has been living in the UAE for 10 years, it’s time to come out of the shadows.
“The entire turn of events has left me speechless,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Attending the ceremony with his three children, Gulya, an investment banker, said he learned of the Abraham Accords through the media.
“Until a few months ago I dared not tell anyone here that I am a Jew,” he said, “but things have changed for the good now.”
The UAE has been more than home for Gulya since he met his Ethiopian wife here.
“She is ready to convert to the Jewish faith, and I’ve already had a word with Rabbi Duchman in this regard,” Gulya said.
During his four-day visit to the UAE, the chief rabbi also approved the nation’s first Jewish school, which is being called “Mini Miracles,” and viewed the plans and proposed site for the community’s new mikvah in Dubai.
“We have 20 students waiting to be enrolled in the kindergarten, which will open for registrations from Jan. 3,” Seal said.
Concluding his visit on Sunday, Yosef traveled to Abu Dhabi to meet with senior UAE government officials to discuss ways to continue to promote mutual understanding between Jews and Muslims across the region.
For Seal and others, it was a hopeful trip that could lead to more.
“While geographically speaking, the Middle East, and historic Arabia, was home to the Sephardic Jewish community, today there is much greater integration between the two communities around the world,” Seal said. “As such, it was perhaps logical Chief Rabbi Yosef was first to visit, but of course, we look forward to welcoming the Ashkenazi chief rabbi, too.”