After a century, first purpose-built shul in the Gulf dedicated in Abu Dhabi

Published: February 17, 2023

Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue is part of the Abrahamic Family House alongside a mosque and church – all built to the same size and shape.

The Chief Rabbi has fixed a mezzuzah at the entrance to the first purpose built synagogue in the Arab world for nearly a century.

The Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue in Abu Dhabi is part of the Abrahamic Family House, which was inaugurated yesterday and which also encompasses the the Eminence Ahmed El-Tayeb Mosque and His Holiness Francis Church, as well as a forum for learning and community engagement. The synagogue features a main sanctuary, two mikvot, beit midrash and a residence for a young rabbinical couple who will live on site.

Located in the Saadiyat cultural district in the capital of the United Arab Emirates, visitors are now welcome to pray in the three houses of worship whilst public access and guided tours will be available from 1 March.

The project was inspired by the principles in the Document on Human Fraternity, signed by His Holiness Pope Francis and His Eminence Grand Imam Dr Ahmed El-Tayeb in Abu Dhabi in 2019.

The three houses of worship are of equal stature and dimensions. They have been designed by leading British architect Sir David Adjaye, of Adjaye Associates, to respect the architectural codes and individualism of each faith. Each takes the form of a cube that is thirty metres deep, thirty metres wide, and thirty metres tall.

Sir Ephraim Mirvis, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, travelled to Abu Dhabi for the historic ceremony with a small delegation from the UK, including Board of Deputies president Marie van der Zyl OBE.

He said: “We have gathered to celebrate this remarkable monument to loving kindness – the Abrahamic Family House. From today onwards, let us use this extraordinary sacred site to promote harmony and peace. In a world in which differences can separate us, let us say here that our shared values shall exist for the sake of our universal aspirations.”

His Excellency Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, President of the Abrahamic Family House, said the structures were “symbolic of the UAE’s longstanding values of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence – values embodied by our Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed.

“The centre will be a platform for learning and dialogue, a model of coexistence set against the backdrop of the multiculturalism and diversity of our nation, where more than 200 nationalities live peacefully side-by-side. We hope that the Abrahamic Family House will inspire youth everywhere, as we highlight our common humanity and work towards the creation of a more peaceful world for generations to come.”

Professor Mohammed Al Mahrasawi, Co-Chair of Higher Committee for Human Fraternity, and former President of Al-Azhar University, added: “The Abrahamic Family House is a true reflection of the provisions of the Document on Human Fraternity, which calls for ensuring peaceful coexistence. It is a testament to the vision of the United Arab Emirates and its leaders towards promoting interfaith dialogue and peace among all. The Abrahamic Family House is a model of coexistence, reconciliation, and mutual respect for the sake of mankind.”

Mohamed Bin Zayed, President of the United Arab Emirates, tweeted: “The UAE has a proud history of people from diverse communities working together to create new possibilities. As the @AbrahamicFH in Abu Dhabi is inaugurated, we remain committed to harnessing the power of mutual respect, understanding and diversity to achieve shared progress.”

The UK’s chief rabbi joined Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, Chief Rabbi of the United Arab Emirates, who said: “This has really been a journey that we have been on together. When Jewish life in the UAE was still very private and confined to one rented villa, the idea that there would be a purpose built synagogue as part of a larger complex was jaw dropping.”

Sarna recalled being at the site three and a half years ago “when there was nothing but dust, having encountered many challenges and questions about how to make this space a synagogue able to be used by Jews around the world, and a place to meet the needs of the local Jewish community and inspire people of all different faiths to walk through it, many for their first time in a synagogue.”

Sarna expressed his hope that Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue “will be a great convergence point for the world”, adding: “It is a beacon of light in actuality. It beautifies the landscape. It’s quite extraordinary to just be in the space.”

The Abrahamic Family House will offer a series of educational and faith-based programmes and events, as well as initiatives for young people, that promote the exchange of knowledge and interfaith collaboration.

The Association of Gulf Jewish Communities tweeted their thanks to the Emirati leadership for initiating the project and their support of the growth of the Jewish community in the UAE: “We are particularly excited to see another synagogue built in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council),” they said. “There is something very special about a synagogue built in a Muslim country and it sends a very strong message to other countries where Jewish people live in fear of being attacked for their beliefs.”

While antisemitism was on the rise in parts of the world, a statement said, the Family House “sends a powerful message that the leadership is ensuring not only our safety but encouraging our practice by building this beautiful synagogue. In a world where people are being attacked for their religious beliefs, the UAE – and our region more broadly – are a beacon of light.”

The American Jewish Committee’s Rabbi David Rosen, one of the world’s leading interfaith figures, told Jewish News: “To have three major leaders of the main Abrahamic Faiths – one of the leading Cardinals, one of the heads of Al Azhar (the most important centre of religious learning in the Muslim world) and the British Chief Rabbi – all bless an exquisitely beautiful and conceptually inspiring complex, where each religious tradition will worship each one in its own house of prayer, but connected in mutual respect, knowledge, and commitment to shared values, is without parallel in human history.

“The Abrahamic Family House has the potential to be the most important interreligious educational complex in the world, which will include introducing and educating millions about the Jewish religion and the Jewish People.”

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