Jews struggle to find places of worship in Dubai

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Every Saturday, in secluded beach villas, hotel banquet halls and luxury apartment towers across Dubai, Jews arrive to worship at some of the world’s most hidden synagogues, even as the United Arab Emirates encourages the spectacular growth and openness of its Jewish community.

Plans to build a permanent shrine for the burgeoning congregation in Dubai have stalled, Jewish leaders say. The new community faces obstacles that religious groups have long faced in this federation, where the official state religion, Islam, is tightly policed, non-Muslim practice is controlled and religious buildings are limited.

The rapidly growing Jewish immigrant population in the UAE — including an influx of Israelis after relations between the countries normalized in 2020 and recently of Russians after the war on Ukraine — may feel freer than ever to express his identity in this autocratic Arab sheikh, who sought to present himself as an oasis of religious tolerance.

GROWTH ATTEMPT

A Jewish nursery was born. The same goes for the mikveh, or ritual bath for women. New kosher restaurants are doing good business. The recent Passover seders drew thousands of people. But without a home base, some Jewish leaders fear a perpetual state of emptiness.

“You cannot develop a community in a hotel,” said Elie Abadie, chief rabbi of the Jewish Council of the Emirates. “It gives a feeling of instability, of not belonging.”

Religious groups seeking to establish new shrines face convoluted rules in the country, where expats outnumber Emirati Muslims nearly nine times. Dubai said only two areas lacking space can be built for religious shrines.

The main church compound – land the government is now offering for a synagogue – rests on the outskirts of town, a dusty area near the port of Jebel Ali and the local aluminum smelter.

“We used to be in the boonies,” said Jim Young, an Anglican chaplain, although an underground line has recently made churches more accessible. Legions of low-paid foreign workers who fuel Dubai’s economy – Catholic Filipinos, Evangelical Africans, Hindu Indians – travel to the compound in buses from distant labor camps.

On the Sabbath, however, observant Jews cannot do such a thing. From sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday, many devout Jews refrain from using mechanical devices, including cars. To avoid long journeys on the holy day, synagogues are usually located in the heart of residential neighborhoods.

But no one lives in the Jebel Ali Export Processing Zone, except for a small group of expatriates whose dilapidated cottages are in danger of being demolished. In the scorching summer heat of Dubai, walking to the temple complex from downtown Dubai or the marina, where most Jews reside, is unthinkable.

“Jebel Ali is not a solution for the Jewish population,” said Alex Peterfreund, a community leader and cantor, adding that a synagogue should be in a central, residential location where observant Jews would want to move and establish a community. community. “The authorities need to learn what Judaism is…I guess they were a little surprised.”

SYNAGOGUES WEDGED

Although many Jews in Dubai do not observe Shabbat, the congregation has become more observant as traditional Israeli and French Jews immigrate.

Community leaders say they rejected the Jebel Ali synagogue proposal and talks on an alternate location have stalled for months.

The National Human Rights Authority of the United Arab Emirates acknowledged the difficulties, saying: “There are administrative and regulatory laws that must be adhered to.”

The authority’s spokesman, Mohamed al-Hamadi, nonetheless stressed the Emirates’ tolerance of religious minorities for decades.

“There is no fear or concern about the inclusion of the Jewish people,” he said, pointing to the Abrahamic Family House, an interfaith facility comprising a mosque, church and synagogue, currently in operation. construction in the capital Abu Dhabi, as proof of the country’s hospitality.

The brilliant interfaith project, due to open later this year on an island off the oil-rich emirate, seeks to highlight the Emirati tradition of peaceful, interfaith relations and promote the UAE as a beacon of tolerance .

However, the country takes a zero-tolerance approach to dissent and political Islam.

Religious freedoms also have limits. Authorities provide weekly guidelines on the content of sermons at Sunni mosques, according to the US State Department’s latest religious freedom report, with “additional instructions” given to Shia mosques. A permit is required to organize a Quran memorization circle. The laws prohibit vaguely defined blasphemy.

OVERCROWDING

“The UAE presents itself as a haven for moderate Islam and against extremism, which also includes Islam-informed national democratic activism,” said David Warren, contemporary Islam scholar at the Washington University in St. Louis.

Meanwhile, local faith groups struggle with logistical and bureaucratic restrictions. More than 700 Christian congregations crowd into some 40 churches across the country.

The construction of new shrines “has failed to meet the demand of the country’s large non-citizen population”, notes the State Department, describing overcrowding at Dubai resorts as “particularly pronounced”.

The Dubai Community Development Authority, which issues licenses to religious organizations, did not respond to requests for comment.

Fellowship, a Protestant congregation, decided years ago to be free from crowds and constraints. He abandoned the precinct and went rogue, commanding rapturous audiences in the city’s hotels.

Authorities grew concerned, but the Fellowship pastor persevered, calling on Emirati leaders to get special permission to operate outside the compound. The organization has been successful and its non-traditional services have exploded in popularity.

“Some might recount the experience as Fellowship overcame incredible odds,” said Steven Pottorff, director of communications for Fellowship.

For Jews, the opposite is true. With no official public space for worship services, they pray freely in five-star resorts and private residences in Dubai.

In a recent downtown Shabbat, a bread-blessing rabbi struggled to be heard over deafening pop music from the world’s largest mall. At a marina hotel filled with yachts, security guards now familiar with Jewish biblical injunctions rushed to press the elevator buttons for worshipers.

“A banquet hall makes you feel like you’re going to a party,” said Rabbi Abadie, who sparked controversy online last month when he called for the creation of a self-sufficient Jewish enclave in Dubai.

He said his comments were misunderstood, but stressed the urgency for Jews to find a permanent place to pray.

“As long as there is no central place, the community will burst, will divide,” he warned.

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