The Abraham Accords, signed in September 2020, cracked open the door between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
With astonishing speed, people wearing kippahs and keffiyehs were joining hands in business, research, academia, and tourism in an atmosphere of mutual warmth.
Yet, well before the accords unlocked that diplomatic door, Jews from a variety of lands were quietly forming a community and conducting synagogue services in the Muslim monarchy. And then, the UAE government’s Year of Tolerance in 2019 brought them out into the open.
They did so with a remarkable flourish.
The film “Amen, Amen, Amen: A Story for Our Times” documents how the Dubai Jewish community commissioned a bejeweled, gold-encased Torah scroll and presented it to Emirati Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in November 2019 in memory of his father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder of the present-day UAE. Bin Zayid, often referred to as “MBZ,” is now president of the UAE.
The hour-long film, which has won 14 awards so far this year, will be screened on October 26 at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. (See below.)
The movie will be followed by a discussion with Tom Gallagher and David Gibson, who wrote, produced, and directed the film, and Gary VandenBergh of Cresskill, another of the film’s producers and editors; Mr. VandenBergh has won two Emmys for his editing work.
Mr. VandenBergh, 70, spent many years working on documentaries for NBC News and now is a freelance film editor. During the pandemic, a friend told him about Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Gibson’s project, and he offered his expertise to these first-time filmmakers.
Not only was Mr. VandenBergh the only experienced filmmaker of the trio but he also was the only Jew. He converted about 40 years ago under Rabbi Mark Kiel, then the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson.
“During my first interview with Tom and David, it came out that I was Jewish, and I think that spoke to them on a certain level that I was the right person for the job,” Mr. VandenBergh said.
“Tom and David are very, very tuned into religious pluralism and different religions, but I think my Jewish education brought some insights that enabled them to tell a fuller story — which, by the way, they were going to tell with or without me, and it was a good story to be told.”
Mr. Gibson, now director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, covered the religion beat at the Bergen Record and then at the Newark Star-Ledger in the 1990s, winning national awards in religion writing at both newspapers.
Mr. Gallagher, the former CEO and publisher of Religion News Service, conceived the idea of “Amen, Amen, Amen” during a trip to the UAE in December 2018. He went back to the UAE in 2019 to film interviews with Jewish community members. He also filmed the ceremony where the Torah was presented to MBZ.
“He had planned to do a few other shoots in the Emirates, but because of the pandemic it all got shut down,” Mr. VandenBergh explained. “While he was holding some great footage, he had no way to really follow up and get all the footage he’d planned to get.”
When Mr. VandenBergh reviewed what Mr. Gallagher had filmed, he realized that it needed augmentation. That was no problem, he said with a chuckle, “because I’ve had a career of making things out of very little.”
He therefore stepped into a role as producer as well as film editor, finding and adding stock footage, third-party footage, and archival news footage to round out the documentary.
Not many people had heard about the unusual Torah before.
The major headline-grabbing events of the UAE’s Year of Tolerance were a visit by Pope Francis to the Muslim country and the start of construction of the Abrahamic Family House, a complex housing a church, a mosque, and a synagogue.
Westchester-based businessman Eli Epstein, who’d been working in the Gulf for more than 30 years and was a supporter of the Dubai Jewish community, floated the idea of giving a Torah from the community to the crown prince in recognition of the Year of Tolerance. (The community is believed to include some 600 to 700 people today.)
Rabbi Yehuda Sarna is a chaplain of New York University and has been the Jewish Council of the Emirates’ traveling chief rabbi since 2019. He put the project in motion with the cooperation of NYU’s president emeritus John Sexton, the cofounder of NYU Abu Dhabi.
The Torah was written by a scribe in Brooklyn and its case was handcrafted in Israel. Mr. VandenBergh said the sacred scroll is now housed at the crown prince’s compound in Abu Dhabi.
“I think the take-home message is that we all have our own beliefs, and we should honor and respect each other for those beliefs and not belittle or judge one another,” Mr. VandenBergh said.
What: “Amen, Amen, Amen: A Story for Our Times” — film and discussion with producer/editor Gary VandenBergh
When: Wednesday, October 26, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Ave., Tenafly
For whom: Teens and adults
How much: $10 for JCC members, and $13 for the public.
Pay at the door or in advance atjccotp.org/programs/lectures-learning/#amen.
More information: Esther Mazor, JCC Adult Programs Director, email@example.com or (201) 408-1456