By Houda Nonoo
Since I was a young child, Hanukkah has always been one of my favorite holidays. It was not just the presents we received or the delicious latkes and sufganiyot (traditional jelly donuts), it was also the time we spent together as a family and a community. As I grew up, I had a whole new appreciation for the holiday as it became a time to reflect on the miracles – large and small – that took place. As Hanukkah approaches this year, we have so many miracles here in the GCC to be thankful for, and they vary in size. Here are eight that I will be focusing on:
As Jewish life flourishes at an unprecedented pace, the local Jewish communities of the Arabian Gulf formed the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities (AGJC) in February to pool our resources for the betterment of all Jews in the Gulf. The impact has been immeasurable. In April, we shipped 650 pounds of matza and distributed it to all six countries. We have held virtual programs to celebrate and commemorate Jewish holidays and occasions such as Purim, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Lag Ba’omer, Tisha Be’Av, slihot and others. We hosted in-person Shabbat dinners in Bahrain and Dubai, bringing together Muslims and Jews. This is the first time that the Jewish communities in the GCC have celebrated the holidays together.
Just a few weeks later, the House of Ten Commandments (our synagogue in Bahrain) reopened its doors after an extensive renovation. We started the refurbishment in the beginning of 2020 and reopened just in time for dozens of delegations and individual tourists to come and visit. We are incredibly proud to have the oldest and only operational synagogue in the GCC and it is our honor to host Jews from all over the world and share with them about the deep history of our community which dates back to the 1880s. Since reopening, we have hosted many events such as the first Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration in Bahrain’s history.
In March, AGJC leadership was invited to Al Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi where we, along with military chaplains and the Jewish Welfare Board, hosted a Passover celebration with holiday food and conversation for US troops stationed at the base. The program was webcast for other US bases in the region.
This year, as antisemitism surged in countries around the world, the United Arab Emirates’ Crossroads of Civilizations Museum developed a Holocaust Memorial exhibit. This first Holocaust exhibit in the Gulf was designed to raise awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust among local Emiratis as well as Dubai’s residents and tourists. The exhibition explores the chain of events leading up to the Holocaust and uses personal stories – many of which come from Jews in the Arab world. There is a special tribute to Arab heroes who defended and saved Jews.
In August, the House of Ten Commandments hosted its first Shabbat minyan since 1947.
With more Jewish families residing in the GCC, naturally, we are celebrating more smachot, happy life-cycle events, as well. In May, the first bat mitzvah was celebrated in Oman. In August, we celebrated the first bar mitzvah in Bahrain in 16 years. In October, we celebrated the first Jewish wedding in Bahrain in 52 years. It was also the first strictly kosher wedding in the kingdom’s history. It was particularly special for me as it was my son’s wedding.
With more Jewish people moving and traveling to the region, there is a greater need for kosher food. As a result, the Arabian Kosher Certification Agency is in the process of being created to oversee kashrut (kosher certification) regionally using the same set of standards throughout all six Gulf countries, thereby making it easier for Jewish individuals to live in or travel around the Gulf. Already dozens of hotels and catering facilities have reached out. As demand has increased, there are now a handful of kosher restaurants in Dubai and Bahrain, as well as three kosher catering options in Dubai and one in Bahrain. Our grocery store shelves are also stocked with kosher packaged goods. I started tweeting from the grocery store when I see kosher certified products and receive many replies with questions about additional products.
This past year, we have made wonderful steps in changing perceptions of how comfortable and safe it is to be a Jewish person in the Arab world. Since I was appointed Bahrain’s ambassador to the United States in 2008, I have been asked hundreds of times about my experience being Jewish in the Arab world. There was always the same follow-up question: “is it safe?”
In the past, people expressed surprise at how well we have been treated. When I rejoined Twitter in January, I wanted to show just how accepted we are here. I was inspired to create the Shabbat Shalom series where each Friday, I bring traditionally Jewish items, like my Shabbat candles and kiddush cup – and the now famous Kedem bottle of grape juice – and take a picture of them with Bahraini landmarks such as the Manama skyline, Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain Bay, Bahrain National Museum, Isa Cultural Centre, King Fahad Causeway, Bab Al Bahrain and more.
In less than one year, these tweets have reached more the 5.5 million people and it’s even more exciting to see others share their Shabbat photos from around the GCC, from other Muslim countries such as Kazakhstan, and from all over the world – including the United States, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Hong Kong, Japan, Israel, Cyprus and more. We’ve created an online community and at the same time, we have seen how it is not just accepted, but celebrated, when we showcase our Jewish heritage, culture, religion and rituals in the Arab countries where we reside.
Someone recently shared with me a beautiful thought from the Ramban (Nachmanides) where he used an example from the Torah in Parashat Bo to say that the purpose of all great miracles is really to show us that a miracle doesn’t need to be supernatural to be considered a miracle. There are miracles that happen every day and we need to recognize them equally because they are extraordinary on their own. When I reflect on these eight examples from this past year, some may seem more extraordinary than others but truthfully, they are all equally miraculous.
The writer served as Bahrain’s ambassador to the United States from 2008-2013. She serves on the board of the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities. For more information, visit www.gulfjewish.org.