Beth Din of Arabia: Jews in Gulf countries announce first communal organizations

Published: February 15, 2021

Spurred by new accords with Israel, communities in UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia create new body under Beirut-born Rabbi Elie Abadie to oversee Jewish life

The Jewish communities in six Persian Gulf countries announced on Monday the establishment of the region’s first communal organization, complete with a rabbi and Jewish court, the Beth Din of Arabia.

The Association of Gulf Jewish Communities (AGJC), which brings together Jews in  Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, will be headed by Rabbi Dr. Elie Abadie and president Ebrahim Dawood Nonoo.

The AGJC is creating a Jewish court, called the Beth Din of Arabia, to preside over issues around civil disputes, personal status, inheritance, and Jewish ritual. It will also run the Arabian Kosher Certification Agency throughout the six Gulf countries.

The announcement comes in the aftermath of UAE and Bahrain establishing diplomatic ties with Israel in September as part of the Abraham Accords. Israel also reached normalization agreements with Sudan and Morocco.

“We thought that as the future has been changed in the last six months here, as this region is opening up to the presence of Jewish people… As communities we ought to get together and try to have the infrastructure necessary to service the local Jewish community and all those Jews who are passing through,” Abadie told the Times of Israel.

Some countries, like UAE and Bahrain, have relatively established Jewish communities, whereas other countries have foreign Jewish diplomats, businessmen, military personnel and employees living there.

“There is a handful in Saudi Arabia,” Abadia explained, “there are others that do not yet publicly live a Jewish life, but we do know of people living there that are members of our association.”

The AGJC will serve both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews who come from countries across the globe. Abadie will seek to incorporate historic traditions from the Gulf region into the religious life of the organization. He will preside over circumcisions, bar/bat mitzvahs, and weddings as well. Jewish ritual slaughter is planned as well in the coming months.

Three rabbis are needed for the Beth Din, and when it meets, rabbis will fly in to join Abadie as judges. Offers have come in from Israel, Europe, and the US.

“We will provide educational services in the forms of shiurim, lectures, conferences, classes,” Abadie said. “Some will be given in person, I will travel to different places, and some will be given via Zoom.”

The AGJC intends to slowly build a Jewish educational system as well, starting with early childhood programs.

On Passover, which begins in late March, the AGJC will provide Matzah, machzor books, and other foods for the Seder meal.

The association is funded by private donors and local community members. At this stage, it has not received any money from state governments.

Abadie said that the Emirati authorities have been extremely supportive. “They have told me that whatever I need, they want to be there for me and for the community.”

Abadie has not yet been in touch with Saudi authorities. Local Jews are handling contacts with their governments at this stage.

In recent years, the UAE has made great strides in presenting itself as an open country that respects all religions. President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan declared 2019 to be the “The Year of Tolerance” in the UAE. In this context, the country announced the building of a massive interfaith compound in Abu Dhabi that will also include a synagogue.

The so-called Abrahamic Family House is slated to open in 2022, and it is currently unclear who will be invited to move into the building.

From Allepo to Dubai

Beirut-born Abadie, a prominent rabbi and scholar of Sephardic Judaism who was living in New York City, began serving as the head of the UAE Jewish community in November.

Abadie was born in Beirut to Syrian Jewish refugees who fled Aleppo amid riots in the wake of the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine. “My family witnessed first-hand how the mobs entered the synagogue, ransacked the synagogue, pillaged it, took Torah scrolls out and burned them…how they dumped the rabbi in the street. And they went into many Jewish businesses and ransacked them.”

An estimated 75 Jews were killed in the Aleppo riots.

Abadie’s family lived in Lebanon for 22 years, until they understood that the country was headed toward civil war.

He grew up in Mexico City and later moved to New York to attend Yeshiva University, where he was ordained as a rabbi in 1986. Four years later, he obtained an MD degree, and still maintains a private gastroenterology practice.

For many years, Abadie served as the spiritual leader of the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue. He also founded the School of the Sephardic Academy of Manhattan and headed the Jacob E. Safra Institute of Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University.

He is an officer of the Rabbinical Council of America and co-president of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, a group advocating for Jewish refugees from the Middle East.

Abadie said that he has received only positive reactions while walking around Dubai wearing a yarmulke, and has even been stopped by Emiratis who want to show off their Hebrew and knowledge of Israeli songs to him. “That has been a very pleasant surprise.”

He will continue his medical practice at a hospital in the UAE in addition to his rabbinical duties.

Reopening Bahrain’s synagogue

Ebrahim Dawood Nonoo of Bahrain will be the AGJC’s president. His family moved in the 1890s from Basra, Iraq to Bahrain, joining hundreds of Jews moving from Iraq to seek economic opportunity in Bahrain.

A smaller number of Jews also settled in Bahrain from Iran at around the same time. At its height in the 1920s and 30s, the community had about 800 members, according to Nonoo, though others have said the number was as high as 1,500. Though community members mixed socially with Bahraini Muslims, they mainly married within the community and lived close to each other in Manama. Members continued to speak Basrawi, a Jewish dialect of Iraqi Arabic and still do.

The synagogue in Bahrain was built in 1935, and the community flourished until the 1947 UN partition vote. A group of rioters, who some claim were foreign workers, burned the synagogue to the ground and stole the country’s only Torah scroll. Most of the community left after the attack or in the decade and a half following, settling in Israel.

The few who remained or their descendants make up the 50 or so Jews living in the country. There is an active Jewish cemetery, but the synagogue — rebuilt by Nonoo’s father in the 1990s — never officially reopened and most of the community continues to pray at home. Until recently, the community relied on the US Navy base in Bahrain for Kosher food and ritual items, but that arrangement no longer exists.

Most Jews now live in the Umm al-Hassam neighborhood in Manama, Bahrain’s capital.

Most of the community members today are financially successful and continue to be represented in the Shura Council, which has designated a seat each for representatives of the country’s Jewish and Christian populations. In 2001, Nonoo became the first Jew appointed to serve on to the country’s Shura Council, the upper chamber of its National Assembly. He was suceeded by Houda Nonoo, who later went on to serve as Bahraini ambassador to the United States. She was replaced by Nancy Khedouri, a relative of the powerful Kadoorie family, a Hong Kong-based Jewish family of Iraqi origin that went on to become one of the wealthiest families in Asia (and transliterated the surname differently). Houda Nonoo and Khedouri are Ebrahim Nonoo’s cousins.

Nonoo spent 15 years studying in the UK, then returned to Bahrain to go into his father’s money exchange business.

The rebuilt synagogue will reopen when COVID-19 restrictions are rolled back. The community will use a  Torah scroll from Israel.

Nonoo looks forward to having a new experience in Bahrain during Jewish holidays. “We can handle the weekly prayers on our own. but we do need a rabbi for the festivals.”

He is optimistic that the establishment of the AGJC will “absolutely” lead to a revival of Jewish life in the kingdom. “If we’re going to be doing bar mitzvahs here, if we’re going to be teaching the kids here, if we’re going to be able to give them a religious education here, it’ll make a big difference.”

“Jewish life in the Gulf has increased dramatically over the last decade,” said Houda Nonoo, who now works in Bahrain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Bahrain, home to the only indigenous Jewish community in the Gulf, has seen growth in Jewish tourism over the last few years. In June 2019, we held the first minyan in decades in our synagogue during the Peace to Prosperity Workshop and two years later, we receive inquiries almost every day from Jews around the world asking about kosher food and to visit the Jewish sites in the Kingdom.”

“In the last decade, we have seen more Jews move to the GCC for business reasons. Additionally, we have all read or experienced the boom in Jewish travel in the UAE in the last few months. As a result, we are creating the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities so that we can support each other,” she said.

Ebrahim Nonoo said Bahrainis have been approaching him seeking business opportunities with Jewish and Israeli companies. “That’s a good sign, too,” he said. “There is a bit of movement, but it’s very slow. In a way, it’s a good thing that it’s slow. Because to make people aware and accept the changes that are going on, it’s better to take it at a slower pace.”

Abadie foresees a blossoming of Jewish life in the region. “I definitely see a growth for communities here in the Gulf for several reasons.” He cited tourism and business opportunities. He also expects some Jews looking to move away from countries experiencing a rise in anti-Semitism to relocate to the region.

For Abadie, starting a new life as a rabbi in the Middle East is deeply personal. “Coming back to a country, where walking down the streets, I feel almost like my childhood in Lebanon. Hearing Arabic, Arabic music, smelling Arabic cuisine, hearing the inspiring prayers of the mosque.”

“It is in a sense closing the circle of Jewish history in Arab and Islamic countries that existed for millennia,” he said.

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