Erev Shabbat in the UAE

Erev Shabbat in the UAE

I let out a little chuckle during the middle of Shabbat services last week in Dubai. My friend sitting next to me asked what could possibly be funny about Lecha Dodi.

It wasn’t the prayer itself that I was chucking about, of course. It was the way the community was singing it—not quite in sync and with evident unfamiliarity with the chazan’s selected melody. It dawned on me that this is the reality of a community that’s so young, with representation from across the globe.

Jews in the UAE come from around the world, each bringing their own melodies and traditions. I began wondering — what is it, then, that makes the people in this room a community, in the true sense of the word?

What unifies a congregation when nobody is from the place where the congregation is based?

Throughout my week in the UAE, I explored these questions alongside American, British, and Canadian peers as part of Inside Jewish United Arab Emirates, supported by Stephen and Sheila Lieberman. We met with prominent members of the Jewish community, Emirati leaders about to embark on their first trip to Israel, and past and present Jewish Service Corp Fellows based in the UAE. The common thread among all parties was a sense of excitement about the recent opening of relations between Israel and the UAE through the Abraham Accords. As trip participants, we were able to witness signs of this progress throughout our tour. Just two years after the signing of the Accords, there is readily available kosher food, Hebrew overheard on the streets and at most major attractions, and even about Jewish history and the Holocaust. Just two years after the signing of the Accords, it’s incredible to think what the future might hold for Jewish life across the Middle East.

There is a great deal of excitement surrounding the Jewish future in the UAE and beyond, and that is because the recent past amplifies this sentiment. Everyone at Shabbat services last week can clearly remember a time when practicing Judaism had to be done underground. Now, to be able to pray openly in a space formally dedicated to Jewish life—with less security than my synagogue in the United States, I might add—feels miraculous. And, as a result, there is a palpable sense of gratitude throughout the congregation.

The UAE Jewish community takes pride in being a part of history, and its members unite through their shared pride in being Jewish. Their implicit message to us visitors was clear: practice your Judaism however you wish, but practice as if yesterday it was banned. While the congregation’s rendition of Lecha Dodi might not have been the most melodic, it was certainly most powerful.

Adam Taylor is originally from Tenafly. In March, he participated in JDC’s Inside Jewish United Arab Emirates supported by Stephen and Sheila Lieberman. He is working toward a masters degree in international relations at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

read more: