Inside the Dubai community centre supporting the UAE’s growing Jewish population

February 02, 2022

By Kelly Clarke

The centre hands out packages to families every Friday to mark the start of the Sabbath

Behind the gates of a large villa in Dubai’s Al Wasl district, there is a thriving community centre supporting the growing Jewish population in the UAE.

Led by Rabbi Levi Duchman, the centre runs on the ethos that all are welcome. His goal is to make people “feel a sense of home” when they walk through the doors.

During a visit by The National, to mark the International Day of Human Fraternity, the centre was full of life as community members prepared for Shabbat, or the Sabbath.

A weekly 25-hour observance, from shortly before sundown each Friday through to sunset on Saturday, Shabbat is a day of rest and abstention from work.

Many households observe the beginning of Shabbat with a feast, where they start the meal with a blessing over grape juice and bread.

“Our Jewish community really comes from all over world — from America, from Europe and, most recently, from Israel,” said Rabbi Levi.

“One of our busiest days is a Friday. We tend to host a big dinner in the welcome entrance of the centre and we prepare Shabbat packages for our members, which has a loaf of challah bread, candles and grape juice.

“The UAE is a true beacon of tolerance and coexistence, where people come together from different backgrounds, cultures and traditions to learn from one another. We are proud to be part of the greater community within the UAE.”

As the smell of cooking filled the air in the kitchen of the community centre, staff and members of Rabbi Levi’s family stirred pots on the hob, chopped vegetables and prepared dough for the challah.

The feast for Shabbat can vary from week to week, but there are always three dishes consistently present during their Friday Sabbath.

Cholent, which is an overnight stew made with meat, potatoes and beans; challah, which is a bread made from seven ingredients for the seven days of week; and traditional chicken soup, which is often referred to as the Jewish penicillin.

As you walk around the community centre, the door to each room is fitted with a mezuzah, which is a small, rolled parchment inscribed with scriptural verses to remind Jews of their obligations toward God.

Rabbi Levi said it is common to find them in most Jewish homes, especially on the front doors.

Towards the front of the villa is also a small in-house synagogue, which is the Jewish place of worship.

Often used for prayer, it is also used as a place for study and has a small library which holds many religious scripts and books.

How the Jewish community was born in UAE

Founded on the principles of inclusivity and coexistence, Rabbi Levi officially opened the centre in 2020, shortly after the Abraham Accords were signed. However, he has been active in the community for years.

Living in the UAE since 2014, he said it was always his dream to organically grow a strong Jewish community within the Emirates.

“I have seen the Jewish population grow so much, with robust and thriving communities in Abu Dhabi and Dubai,” he said.

“Collectively, we have hundreds of members and that number is expected to increase in the coming years.

“The centre is really the hub of our work and we provide help to people, whether it be looking for work, accommodation or just general support at home.

“We have a strong education programme that helps both children and adults strengthen their Jewish identity too.”

The centre operates under the umbrella of Jewish UAE – an organisation dedicated to serving the thousands of Jews living, working and visiting the UAE.

In September, Rabbi Levi also helped to establish the first Jewish nursery in the country, called Mini Miracles, which runs a British curriculum but incorporates Jewish values.

With the capacity to hold 100 pupils, it currently has 15 children enrolled on the school register.

Jewish community has doubled

The UAE hosts between 350 and 500 Jews who are active within the community, a number which has doubled since the signing of the Abraham Accords.

In addition, about 250,000 Israelis have already visited the Emirates since the document was signed in the summer of 2020.

“We want to continuously promote Jewish knowledge, awareness and practice,” he said.

“Our work is centred around strengthening Jewish identity and affording every Jew the opportunity to experience the joy and vibrancy of his or her Jewish heritage.

“We are so thankful to the leadership of the UAE with this bold vision of tolerance and religious pluralism here and in the Middle East.

“On behalf of the Jewish community, we would like to thank the leadership and bless them to continue to be this true beacon of light, not only to the region but to the entire world.”

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