Next year in Abu Dhabi
Local rabbi talks about new shul opening in the UAE
In 1990, I remember sitting down in my kitchen to tell my aging grandmother, an immigrant from Riga, Latvia, who lived most of her adult life in Michigan, that her youngest grandson — me — was going to spend a year living in Israel and studying.
Her eyes welled up with tears and she gazed at me with awe. I had seen those tear-filled eyes and that stare before. On Yom Kippur, Passover, and a few other times when we said the words l’shana haba’ah beYerushalyaim — next year in Jerusalem — that look would wash over her face.
My bubbie was raised in a religious home, full of liturgy and customs. But those words, l’shana haba’ah beYerushalyaim, next year in Jerusalem — words that her grandparents had whispered at Passover seders while hiding from Cossacks, or when the town cantor, who doubled as the local butcher, chanted at the conclusion of Yom Kippur Neilah services — those words were the epitome of messianic dreams. They were words filled with hope that seemed unachievable in any lifetime. They were a religious dream, a distant hope that was like grasping for stars and as far away as humans landing on the moon.
Little did my grandmother know that in her lifetime she would witness human beings sinking their feet into the sand of the moon, and she also would be able to see the State of Israel be established, survive, and thrive. So for her, the idea of her grandson going to study in Israel was a reminder of a miracle she was blessed to witness in her lifetime, a miracle for which she had prayed, and whose fruits she could taste.
This Sunday, I found my own eyes welling up, just as my grandmother’s had. I was watching another miracle come to fruition.
Members of my synagogue, Temple Emanu-El of Closter, travelled to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Twenty-five people came eager to learn, explore, share experiences, dream together, and most importantly, taste the fruits of the Abraham Accords.
Fortuitously, our journey coincided with the opening of the Moses Ben Maimon synagogue in Abu Dhabi. This unique congregation is the realization of a decades-long dream the Emirati people had to create a shared prayer place for Muslims, Jews, and Christians. The physical campus is called the Abrahamic Center. The building has three prayer spaces, each the same size, with minor adaptations to accommodate each religion’s specific rituals, three separate entrances, and a shared rooftop garden.
This synagogue is the first new Jewish prayer space to open in the Arab world in almost 100 years. Think about that figure! One hundred years.
The timing of our program allowed us to have a front row seat to the unfolding of this history.
More than 300 people came from as close as Dubai and as far as New York, Jerusalem, and Washington to celebrate the dedication of the space, to bless the affixing of the mezzuzot, and to participate in the gathering of the first prayer service in this sacred place.
What caused my eyes to well up and made me feel my grandmother’s presence was when a Yemenite boy whose father had been imprisoned by the Houthis and saved by the Emirati leadership just a few months ago, sang a song of celebration before the open ark. His melodic voice and Yemenite tunes sang directly to our hearts. Then a Muslim man dressed in full robe and kafiyah led a prayer in Arabic for the welfare of the country of the UAE and its leader, Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed.
A prayer for the government by a devout Muslim in a Jewish congregation. Who could have imagined that?!
In my lifetime, the government of an Arab neighbor of Israel, once the Jewish state’s sworn enemy, now is funding and celebrating the opening of a synagogue and is supporting the burgeoning Jewish community in its country.
In Bahrain, a one-hour flight away, the Jewish community has been brought back to life. Jews are encouraged to visit. The same is happening in Morocco, and perhaps soon will happen in Oman, Saudi Arabia, and who knows where else next?
We do not have to look far or search hard to see that so much is broken in our world. It is easy to feel the brittleness of the ground beneath us. Political division, cruel rhetoric, and class strife are rampant in our Diasporic and Zionist world. We have much to work on and improve in the days and years ahead.
But let us not lose sight of the miracles of peace with our neighbors and collaboration with our cousins that once seemed as far away as electric cars and flying vehicles, but now is a reality that might be as close as the next sunrise.
I hope you can have your eyes well up with tears of joy in witnessing this gift in our lifetime. May it stoke us never to stop dreaming and hoping for the world we want our kids to live in. May their eyes tear as they inherit the work of our hands and the dreams of our parents, and pass it on to generations to come.
David-Seth Kirshner is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El of Closter and immediate past president of both the New York Board of Rabbis and the North Jersey Board of Rabbis.