In the six years that Brooklyn native Rabbi Levi Duchman has lived in the United Arab Emirates, he’s never been this overwhelmed.
On Hanukkah, the 27-year-old rabbi hurried from one party to another, dashing into a Dubai Hilton hotel ballroom to briefly light candles with a group of Orthodox Jewish tourists from Israel, many of them visiting an Arab country for the first time.
One of them approached the rabbi with a query: Did the local Starbucks use camel milk, which is not kosher, in its coffee machines?
“I think it’s fine, but you have to find out,” Duchman advised.
Days later, the rabbi broke ground on the UAE’s first mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath. Meanwhile, his brother, a butcher and kosher food supervisor at a year-old, high-end kosher restaurant in central Dubai, had to fly in another kosher butcher from Israel to help meet demand of a couple thousand chickens a week for the restaurant and the community’s visitors.
“There’s so much going on,” said Mendel Duchman, the butcher. “It’s too much for one man to handle.”
At least 40,000 Israelis have traveled to Dubai this month, according to the Israeli airport authority. Fifteen daily, 3 1/2-hour nonstop flights from Tel Aviv to Dubai began this month on three Israeli airlines and an Emirati carrier.
Among those making the trip are Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish tourists, carrying their own Torah scrolls and kosher steaks, flying east over Saudi Arabia to a land they never expected to visit.
Duchman estimates a few thousand Jewish expatriates are living in the UAE, though some suggest the numbers may be lower. They are mainly from English-speaking countries and Europe, working largely in finance or energy. The community maintains a low profile, given sensitivities about Jews and Israel in the region. For years, some have organized prayers in a Dubai villa, unmarked for their safety but with the tacit approval of local authorities.
Since the Israel-UAE peace deal was announced in August, the Jewish community has burst out of the shadows, scrambling to accommodate the rush of devout Jewish visitors. But the community is still not officially registered as a religious group with the UAE, and there are tensions over who claims the title of head rabbi.
In October, the Jewish Council of the Emirates, which calls itself the official representative body of the UAE’s Jewish community, appointed Elie Abadie, a Beirut-born rabbi from New York, as head rabbi. The group hopes to receive official UAE licensing next month.
Duchman, a member of the Chabad Jewish outreach movement, also calls himself the rabbi of the UAE. He began a separate group, the Jewish Community Center of UAE, which operates its own Dubai villa for prayers and religious events.
Many Israelis are traveling to Dubai specifically to escape their own country’s coronavirus lockdown. In Dubai, they can enjoy restaurants and hotels (all are closed back home) and hold events like large weddings that are not permitted in Israel.
Some Israelis have returned from Dubai infected with COVID-19. But for weeks, Israel’s foreign ministry resisted placing restrictions on them. This was to avoid angering the UAE, according to a foreign ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the diplomatic matter. Last week, Israel avoided singling out any one country by requiring quarantines for travelers returning from all international destinations.
Devout Jewish visitors are traveling on package tours to the UAE. One recent tour organized by the Israeli travel agency Shainfeld Tours (which charges $4,000 per couple for a five-day vacation) took over a Dubai hotel kitchen to prepare kosher meals and flew in a popular ultra-Orthodox Israeli religious singer, Ruli Dikman, for a Hanukkah concert.
Guests were seated at assigned tables to minimize possible virus transmission, but some locked arms and swayed with the music during the concert. Before Dikman’s nighttime performance, he spent the day touring Dubai’s gold market dressed head to toe, for fun, in a white Emirati kandora robe.
So did Mordechai Halperin, 17, a Hasidic yeshiva student whose sidelocks peeked out of his headscarf. “We are five brothers. We all bought them,” Halperin said of the kandora. Tourists are often encouraged to dress up in the Emirati robe, and with so many local residents wearing them, Israelis in costume did not seem to attract attention.
Some religious Jews have traveled to the Emirates in search of business opportunities. One told NPR he considered opening a kosher hotel but found too much competition. Another wanted to market his fashion line of upscale Orthodox women’s clothing to a Muslim clientele.
Dubai, with its opulent high rises, indoor skiing and overwhelmingly foreign-born population, is not a typical Arab city. Most tourists’ interactions are with foreign hospitality and service workers — who come from countries ranging from Pakistan to the Philippines. They rarely meet Emiratis.
But Orthodox Jewish Israelis, easily identifiable by their religious Jewish garb, say Emiratis approach them.
“One woman came to us and say, ‘Hello, I’m so happy you are here. Please come more, come again, I love you.’ And I don’t know her, I never met her and I will never meet her again,” said Tehila Ohana, wandering the Dubai gold market. Her husband wore a touristy Dubai t-shirt, his ritual tzitzit fringes dangling from beneath the shirt.
Elad Kalifa, an ultra-Orthodox Israeli admiring a Rolls-Royce in downtown Dubai, said he felt comfortable walking the streets wearing a kippah on his head, amid a diverse collection of Muslim dress from around the world.
“Everyone here is going around with something strange on their heads,” Kalifa joked. “The feeling here is much, much better than in Europe, better than Germany, London, France. There you are different. There you are strange.”
Emirati law protects them: Insult or harass anyone in Dubai, and you can be jailed or deported.
The peace deal has its detractors. Many Arabs in the region think it’s unfair to reward Israel while Palestinians under Israeli control do not have independence. Some Israelis publicly refuse to visit the UAE due to the Emirates’ treatment of foreign laborers and lack of LGBTQ rights.
Israeli tour companies and Israel’s tourism ministry have advised travelers not to talk politics in the UAE.
Emiratis critical of the deal declined interviews with NPR, wary of government reprisals, as did Palestinians living in the Emirates.
The UAE has spent years seeking to improve its image in the U.S. following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Two of the hijackers were Emirati. That outreach included quietly hosting delegations of American Jewish community leaders in the years leading up to the new deal with Israel.
“The UAE now is being seen through a lens that is welcoming Jewish visitors and Jewish tourists and Israeli tourists. But we were always open. We were always tolerant,” UAE Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba said in an interview with NPR, referring to the large community of foreigners living in the UAE.
Jewish visitors to the UAE recall lighting Hanukkah candles behind drawn curtains in their hotel rooms in years past. This year, for the first time, Rabbi Duchman’s group held several nights of Hanukkah concerts and candle lightings with an enormous menorah at the foot of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, as Hebrew songs echoed throughout the center of the city.
For COVID-19 safety, authorities eventually put an end to those parties. But Suri Fulda, an Orthodox Jew from Israel, was moved by the holiday celebration.
“They lit the candles the first night of Hanukkah. It was a miracle. The Muslim world is accepting us, and I thought it was something to be very, very proud of as a Jew,” Fulda said.
She admitted Dubai is like a “cruise ship on land,” filled with foreigners. She barely met any Emiratis. But she hopes to visit other countries making peace with Israel. Bahrain — which signed a peace deal with Israel on the same day the UAE did — is on her bucket list.