Association of Gulf Jewish Communities pools the experience and infrastructure of Jews in six countries
Jews living in the heart of Arabia are now able to connect openly with their co-religionists and share resources with the establishment of the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities (AGJC). The network comprises Jews residing in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait. The Jewish communities in these six countries vary in size from a lone businessman in one country to the estimated 1,000 Jews of the UAE.
M.O., the oldest expat working in the Gulf, is a practicing Jew residing in Oman. He told The Media Line that he was looking forward to open interaction with his co-religionists. “The intention is to connect each other, to offer assistance; for rabbis to be able to help with celebrations of bar mitzvahs in the Gulf,” he says.
The AGJC was created to serve as the umbrella organization for the Jewish communities of Gulf Cooperation Council member states. Its purpose is to help Jewish life in the Gulf flourish for the benefit of residents and visitors. Among its functions is to oversee programming and provide services essential to a Jewish lifestyle. To that end, the Beth Din of Arabia – the region’s first Jewish religious court – and the Arabian Kosher Certification Agency have been established as part of the group’s mandate to provide the infrastructure and services necessary for lifecycle events and community programs.
Beirut-born Rabbi Elie Abadie, the senior rabbi in Dubai who was just recently granted official status by the Emirati government, will preside as the rabbi of the AGJC. “As the largest community in the Emirates, and with a functioning rabbi in place, looking forward to the future came with the realization that it is important to harness all of our resources together from all the Jewish communities and Jewish individuals in the Gulf region to help each other provide services that other communities don’t have just because of their sheer size,” Abadie told The Media Line.
“The oldest Jewish community of the Gulf countries is Bahrain, which dates back 140 years,” Abadie continued. “They have a synagogue; they have a cemetery. It is believed the origin is from Iraqi and Persian Jews and a few others. Then the newest community as a community would probably be here, the United Arab Emirates.”
Following the UAE, Bahrain became the second country to normalize relations with Israel under what would become known as the Abraham Accords. It was also the host country for the Peace to Prosperity conference, which launched the Trump peace plan, in June 2019. It is home to some 80 Jews. Ambassador Houda Nonoo, who served on Bahrain’s Shura Council and was later named Bahrain’s envoy to Washington, represents Bahrain on the AGJC board.
Today, Nonoo works for Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry. She told The Media Line that “for us in Bahrain, this marks an important milestone as we will now have access to a rabbi who can come to Bahrain to officiate lifecycle events. I have known Rabbi Dr. Abadie for more than a decade as I had the honor of spending some holidays with his synagogue during my time as Bahrain’s ambassador to the United States and I am very excited about this opportunity for our local community.”
The Nonoo family of Bahrain dates back to the 1890s, having immigrated from Basra, Iraq. This close-knit unit witnessed the building of a synagogue in the 1930s that was burned down a decade later. Finally repaired, it has yet to reopen due to COVID-19 restrictions.
A Jewish cemetery exists where Nonoo’s father is buried in one of the few marked graves there. Her cousin, Ebrahim Daoud Nonoo, is a prominent Bahraini businessman who was the first Jew to sit on the Shura Council and will preside as president of the AGJC.
Businessman Alex Peterfreund, the AGJC’s Emirati board member, told The Media Line that he was looking forward to benefiting from the longevity and experience of Bahrain’s veteran Jewish community, which, he said, could provide advice on issues such as engaging the local authorities.
The Omani Engineer
The Jewish board member in Oman, M.O., asked not to be identified. Born in Vancouver in 1977, the Harvard-educated engineer moved to Oman from Kuwait in 2008 after falling in love with the country during a camping trip.
His work took him around the Gulf including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE. Never married but father of two, he tells The Media Line, “There has always been Jewish life in the Gulf. Two and a half years ago, there were 45 to 50 of us in Oman. Now, we are down to maybe 20. With the oil prices, people will leave and we will lose two more families.”
According to M.O., the Omani government has become very serious about “Omaniztion” due to a dire employment problem. Some 132 visa categories were established that are limited to Omanis and there is a royal decree that requires the mandatory retirement of expats in certain jobs while visas are not being renewed.
M.O. speaks of the beauty of Oman, the close proximity of the beach to the city, the virtually crimeless country and the kind and caring neighbors that, he says, are why he calls Oman home.
“I’m the most religious here. I pray twice a day, [observe] the Sabbath and have gone the last two years being vegetarian. There is kosher food in the supermarkets from canned tomatoes to pasta. There’s even wonderful pickled garlic and kosher-certified spices from South Africa. People take it for granted when you can go to shul [synagogue] and meet others Jews but here it is really important.”
Oman’s Jewish cemetery in Sohar dates back more than 100 years and there were traders here as far back as 950 CE.
Bottom of Form
As the holidays of Purim and Passover approach, M.O. has a new network through the AGJC and the GCC where he can connect. He hopes to meet more Jewish travelers now than the 15 to 20 he has met during the past couple of years.
The Jewish Director in Kuwait
“Raphel” relocated from London to Kuwait with his family for work. He told The Media Line that one can count the number of Jews living in Kuwait City “on your hand.” He added that there are fewer than 20 more Jews, including a rabbi, on a nearby army base. Speaking about being Jewish in Kuwait, he said, “When you’re out of your comfort zone, you grow up as a person and you have to think out of the box.”
“There is a massive supermarket here that has many kosher items. If you can’t find grape juice, you can squeeze grapes. We live on the Arabian Sea, which substitutes for a great mikveh,” he said. “There are Iranian clay oven’s here for bread. It is just flour and water. We use it for our Shabbat challah.”
Around 200 years ago, hundreds of Jews lived in Kuwait, many of Iraqi origin, but they left in the early 1900s. There was even a Jewish cemetery.
Raphel believes that “the Association will be helpful if we need certain items like matzah, or kosher for Passover food. We can be in touch with other communities, we can connect with Jews we never connected with before and will get to know them better.
“The Kuwaitis are very hospitable; it is a very conservative country. You see fellow workers praying five times a day and think I should be doing that.”
Remaining Board Members
Daniel Wise, the board member in Qatar, is a Jewish Welfare Board-certified lay leader who, for the past 10 years, has provided support for US service members.
A board member also resides in Saudi Arabia.
“The concept for the AGJC materialized as an organic process, catalyzed by the pandemic,” according to Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, who is the honorary chairman of the AGJC.
“I became excited about this kind of project about a year ago, when Eli Epstein and I shipped matzah and other Passover needs from New York to Dubai. Members of the Jewish community there took requests from Jews throughout the Gulf and FedExed Passover packages to them. It was an extraordinary feat, especially under the heat of the pandemic. Around this time we also began hosting Zoom gatherings and found that Jews throughout the Gulf were logging on and actually getting to know each other.”
Sarna related to The Media Line his hopes for the services that the association could provide to both locals and businesspeople: “My primary aim in all my work is to facilitate a kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name. What we have observed in Bahrain and the UAE is that the presence of a respectful, residential Jewish community in those countries has broken down negative stereotypes of Jews and Judaism. If Gulf Jewish communities are strengthened, and visitors follow the lead of the residents, then these communities can become powerful pivots for Arabs and Jews into a brighter era for the Middle East.”
The Beth Din [Jewish court] of Arabia is in the process of being established to assist with issues pertaining to personal status, inheritance and voluntary business dispute resolution in the region.
According to Rabbi Abadie, “It will deal mostly with personal status of marriages, divorces, of course brit milah [ritual circumcision], bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, and all life cycle events at which the presence of a rabbi is customary.
Abadie is looking forward to meeting the other Jews of the Gulf. “I have to been to Bahrain. I have not been to the other countries, although as soon as coronavirus regulations are lifted, I will be able to fly.”