Jews Say Hi in Dubai

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Davening in Dubai’s Villa shul: Davening in Dubai’s Villa shul.

Ross Kriel began traveling from his home in South Africa to Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), to his global French company’s headquarters in 2008. After a few years, his boss suggested that the native “Joburger” and his family relocate there; as an Orthodox Jew, Ross was not interested.

Ross elaborates, “Eventually, my boss said to me, ‘Ross, if you want to move your career, you have to be mobile. You can’t just stay in South Africa; why don’t you come to Dubai?’ I spent two years saying no to him, for obvious reasons, because we assumed — not incorrectly — that it is very difficult for a Jew to live in a Muslim country and in a place without Jewish infrastructure.”

It was only after Ross’s boss persistently asked him to make the move that he and his wife, Elli, made an exploratory trip to Dubai. It revealed that there were some Jews living there who had already started an embryonic community and that the supermarkets had kosher food available. The Kriels moved to Dubai in 2013, after conferring with their Rav who was cautiously encouraging.

“I guess we decided to have an adventure, but we did take a risk,” reminisces Ross. “I remember asking my Rav about it. He said it was risky. I made a real, solemn oath to myself that in coming to Dubai, not only would we maintain our Judaism, but we would intensify and build it. We actually have lived up to that. It was a silent prayer that I made to Hashem: ‘Please don’t let this happen if that can’t be realized.’ It really has been realized in ways that we could never have imagined.”

Jewish Pride

Ross’s promise started to take shape even before the family moved to Dubai. When his company asked him which religion it should declare for him on the Dubai resident form, he insisted on answering “Jewish” despite the Human Resources people suggestion that it be filled out as “Christian.”

“On a superficial level,” shares Ross, “we moved to Dubai because my company needs me to be here; on a deeper level, I do think that we had a destiny here. The fact that we were able to really be pioneers and help build a Jewish community from scratch is the most beautiful thing that Elli and I have ever done. It ended up being a real blessing.”

When the Kriels got to Dubai, there was no infrastructure for a minyan — no sifrei Torah, no place for davening, and no understanding if that was even allowed. Without having the basics, they weren’t sure how to begin, but they were committed to doing their utmost.

“My dear friend Alex — who grew up in a chareidi community in Antwerp — and I decided we would start davening together,” recounts Ross. “He was davening in his house and I was davening in mine. Deciding to do this regularly, I think, was the most important decision we made. We know in Judaism, setting aside a regular time for learning and davening is very fundamental, and that is what we did. We also decided to pretend we were davening with 100 people; we went through the whole service with singing, did the haftorah and leined from a Chumash. We practiced leading services for months before having a full minyan.”

Chinuch Challenges

Rabbi Chananya Jacobson (R) in UAE.

At the time of their move, the Kriels’ son, Izzie, was only 6; their daughter, Evie, was 4. They sent them to international English-speaking schools. This was, presumably, the biggest test. However, in retrospect, they withstood this challenge.

“In the beginning, we were the only ones we knew who were Jewish at the school, and we were a bit nervous about what our children could say,” reminisces Elli. “We told them initially not to say anything; we would talk to the teachers. I told one of them, ‘If there are going to be any parties at school where food will be served, please contact me first. We are a Jewish family and we keep kosher; I will send in kosher food for my son.’ She looked at me and said, ‘That’s nice! I’m also Jewish!’ It was very surprising. We found that when we did reveal to parents that we are a Jewish family, we got a lot of warmth, acceptance, and positive feedback about it.”

Now that Izzie and Evie are soon to celebrate their bar and bas mitzvah, respectively, the Kriels are proud of what their children have achieved.

Ross admits, “I have to say that I had to swallow very, very hard when we came here and Izzie and Evie started out in a non-Jewish school. I never imagined that our children would. That was a very tough thing and I didn’t feel good about it. So, I arranged for them to be enrolled in a Jewish online school — a beautiful Chabad school set up for their shluchim.”

Ross shares that he also became much more actively involved in their education, in all sorts of ways, than he would have been if they attended a Jewish school.

“I davened together with them in the morning at home and would talk Torah on the way to school, which is a half-hour away — I used that valuable time to teach the children. We had to be very active as parents in order to compensate. Although we’ve made a sacrifice as far as Jewish content in education, our Jewish identity and the strength of the identity has been amazing in everything — kashrus, being shomer Shabbos. They both have a strong, well-developed Jewish identity, which is being honed through their experiences in our home, and a very real love for Torah.”

Under the Radar

The Kriels got their first sefer Torah from Western Marble Arch Synagogue in London, on loan, after Ross convinced the shul that he was shomer Shabbos and would be responsible for it.

“We were able to sneak the sefer Torah into town in a golf bag,” recalls Ross. “We weren’t sure if we were allowed to bring it in; we were a bit worried. We went to a furniture store and found a very nice cupboard that we used for an aron kodesh and it was housed in my living room. It took us about a year to get a minyan. About two years later, when our Rosh Hashanah davening drew 60 or 70 people, Elli was overwhelmed and kicked us out of the house. She felt that she couldn’t enjoy Shabbos without any privacy, with strangers always walking around her house. She was completely right.”

Fortunately, when Ross approached the Lebanese-Italian-Jewish owner of a nearby villa and asked if he was willing to share his space and rent, he agreed. The community members fell in love with the shul’s new home.

“We were always very careful when people wanted the location of the villa,” remarks Ross. “We had no sign on it and there was no website — we didn’t want people to Google us.”

Although the Jewish community members always drew comfort from knowing that the UAE, a very law-abiding country, is outspoken in opposing fundamentalism and violent extremism of any kind, they still had concerns for their minyan: Were they allowed to pray? Were they doing anything unlawful? Should they get some sort of permission and if so, how?

“In the early days of our community, we were quite paranoid,” admits Ross. “I remember one day, during davening, we were wearing our talleisim and there was a knock at the door. Everyone scattered out of the lounge and dashed into the kitchen. I took off my tallis and went to the door — it was the gardener.”

The Kriels also had to be very security conscious about the authenticity of those who said they were Jewish who came to Dubai from every part of the world — the U.S., Brazil, Australia, Europe, North Africa, Morocco, Iraq, Lebanon, Italy, among other locales. And, when it came to communicating via their email group, community members would use code words, such as “Holy Land” when writing about Israel and “YK” when referring to Yom Kippur.

Ross was not comfortable with this and decided to take the direct approach. As a leader of the community, he also felt strongly about establishing relationships with the government as early and extensively as possible. He wanted to clarify with the officials that Jews were granted permission to live as Jews, rather than live a Marrano-like existence.

Ross explains, “We wanted to make it very clear that we wanted to obey the law; we wanted permission. We weren’t Marranos; we weren’t being secret.”

This permission was a requisite in order to help them stay in the country, and plan to build the infrastructure so crucial for the Jewish family.

Helping to Pave the Way for the Abraham Accords

Little did Elli, a sociologist-turned-caterer by profession, realize the role she would have indirectly in helping pave the way for the Abraham Accords in showcasing her kosher catering cottage business, “Elli’s Kosher Kitchen,” at Kosherfest, the annual trade show in 2019.

“In 2018, I had met Joel Weinberger, who is one of the business developers at STAR-K Kosher Certification,” recalls Elli. “He travels through Dubai regularly on his way to Pakistan and India. When he came across my service, he was very supportive and helpful. A few months later, he approached me and said, ‘Let me help you get your business onto the international stage. You’ve got a great story here; you’re doing a great thing. Let me help you get more customers. I will sponsor you a stand at the show in the U.S.’”

Elli was the only exhibitor representing a Middle Eastern Arab country. She served Emirati date cakes and coffee and gave away spices. A real highlight of the event was a visit from the UAE’s consul general to the United States, H.E. Abdalla Shaheen. He came to the booth and accepted a cup of Emirati coffee. It was a wonderful affirmation of their business and the community.

“People were thrilled that the UAE’s consul general was there and what it could mean to the U.S.,” says Elli. “It was one of the facts that facilitated the Israel deal — not because of us directly, but the fact that the UAE was open to Jews and the Jewish community.”

“Actually,” adds Ross, “this is no exaggeration. Elli’s stint at the food festival was featured in an article which UAE’s ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al Otaiba, sent to the Israeli media, communicating very directly with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli public, ‘Look at what is possible if there’s peace! In the UAE, we even have a kosher caterer!’”

Looking to the Future

“You see some worrying trends in Europe, where countries like Lithuania, Poland, and Hungary seem to be revisiting their Holocaust past and venturing almost into denialism, not fully owning up to their culpability,” observes Ross. “You see a different trend in some of the countries in the Arabic world, which seems to be about acknowledging the Holocaust, acknowledging Jewish history and encouraging Jews to come back. It is encouraging and helpful. We need to reassess our relationship with the Muslim world.

“There is a beautiful opportunity now with the Abraham Accords for us to reconsider what it means to live as a Jew in this part of the world, what is the history of Jews in Muslim countries after the times of the founding of Islam until the present. The reality is that there is potentially a hopeful future with Muslim countries. Elli and I have been overwhelmed about how positive Emiratis are about the accords; they are learning Hebrew and can’t wait to visit Israel. Her friend May even brought us flowers to celebrate. People are saying this is going to be a warm peace.”

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Ross Kriel Joel Weinberger in Dubai Villa shul.

From Golf Bag to Velvet Cover

“The Villa Shul” has come a long way since its on-loan sefer Torah was snuck into Dubai in a golf bag. It has since acquired its own scroll, donated in 2015 by Eli Epstein, a frum Jew from New York. He is chief innovation officer at Aminco Resources — a supplier of products to the aluminum and steel industries — who has been traveling to Dubai for business for over 30 years. The sefer Torah is clothed in a unique white velvet cover, commissioned by Eli.