Global Jewish Reflections | Next Year in Dubai: Building Jewish Community in the United Arab Emirates

As we head into the High Holiday season, Sarah Tagger, this year's JDC Entwine Ralph I. Goldman (RIG) Fellow, reflects on her work cultivating Jewish life in Dubai.

By Sarah Tagger - 2021 JDC Entwine Ralph I. Goldman Fellow, Dubai | September 1, 2021

Sarah Tagger, this year's JDC Entwine Ralph I. Goldman (RIG) Fellow.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

Saturday morning rolls in as the sun rises over the desert dunes, enveloping and illuminating the city. The morning brings a warm breeze, and Dubai begins its weekend routine. The call to prayer breathes a current into each neighborhood, Sheikh Zayed Road fills with cars, vendors at the downtown markets unfurl their vast selections, cafes in the Marina brim with patrons preparing for morning brunch, and the coastline collects runners and yogis as they go about their rituals. 

And simultaneously, throughout the city, Dubai’s Jewish population arises to begin the Sabbath day.

While Shabbat may look different for each Jew, depending on the way they practice, there is an undoubted uniqueness to what happens here in the city every weekend.

For the past few decades, Dubai’s Jewish community has been largely in the shadows. Decentralized and distanced, several longtime Jewish residents told me, “I did not come to Dubai to be Jewish.” For most, and for quite some time, there was little knowledge of one another, no space to gather, and no open engagement. Jewish life in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was not officially permitted.

But flourishing slowly over the last few years, especially following last August’s Abraham Accords (a diplomatic treaty between the UAE and Israel that normalized relations between the two countries), Jews now have a multitude of ways to openly connect with each other and congregate as a community. And while there are evidently a plethora of ways to spend one’s Saturday, several of Dubai’s Jews now choose to spend it together. Whether at one of the city’s three main services, a beautiful meal, or simply lounging the hours away, Jews who came from all over the world to try their hand at living in Dubai are meeting week after week to create their own sense of home.

With the High Holidays upcoming, and Rosh Hashanah beginning a new year, there will surely be another fascinating chapter in Dubai’s Jewish history. But even more than a chapter, this year represents something totally new for the city and its Jewish community. While Dubai is an always dynamic, ever-evolving hub, it is in a contemporary moment of renewal. As the pandemic continues, Dubai is preparing for the postponed World Expo beginning in October and growing into a new phase of global collaboration.

Sarah Tagger (second from right) with the Jewish Cultural Centre (AMCL) team in Dubai.

And concurrently, Dubai’s Jewish community finds itself in a similar boat. The UAE, following a year of budding relations with Israel, has received a higher influx of Jews and Israelis than ever before; and with an intentional welcoming and protective atmosphere for the community, there is a fresh start on the horizon. For the first time in a long time, Jews are flocking to the region, dreaming up new opportunities in their new home and learning from those who already live here.

As this year’s JDC Entwine Ralph I. Goldman Fellow, I am spearheading the program strategy for Dubai’s first-ever Jewish cultural space, aptly named Abraham’s Miracles Centre for Learning, which will launch this fall. It will be a place to gather and learn, not just for the Jewish community across the city, but for the UAE as a whole, the Jewish community worldwide, and for intercultural engagement with individuals from all backgrounds. In spending the summer learning, thinking — and doing so in alignment with the community as so many exciting Jewish programs are being developed — there’s a feeling of possibility that has reverberated and resonated with me deeply.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about this moment, from both a personal and academic perspective. My master’s thesis explored whether cooperation could contribute to lasting peace and watching these developments has demonstrated just what the energy of new beginnings — paired with a nurturing of commitment to collaboration — can achieve.

There is also an interesting question to be asked when the focus shifts from outward-facing Jewish relations, to examining what these developments mean for Jews internally. Dubai will likely be amongst one of the most multifaceted, diverse Jewish communities on the globe. As a result, I have found myself asking: how do we continue to meet, and understand, the needs of, local Jewish communities? What does this mean for JDC?

While Dubai is an always-dynamic, ever evolving hub, it is in a contemporary moment of renewal.

I believe that it means continuing to stay present in this flourishing landscape and journeying alongside Dubai’s Jewish community throughout its development. I believe it means continuing to show up on the ground as humble guests; so that we can listen, ask questions, understand, and act as needed. I believe it means building relationships, creating connections, and sharing best practices, to serve as a conduit in uniting Dubai’s Jewish community with the global Jewish community at large.

Perhaps even further, is what this question means for the larger Jewish world. I see it as a time of inspiration and of empowerment, to build and rebuild, to adjust and readjust. Ultimately, it is the blast of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah that reminds us that hayom harat olam (today, the world is born once more). That every year, we are gifted a new moment to begin again and create our future.

This past week I was thinking about one of my favorite quotes — “the grass is green where you water it.” Reading this quote, I remembered something about Ralph Goldman that fascinated me. He believed in the importance of both learning and doing, and his ethos was predicated on the notion that while you might have the need to “do,” you must also never stop learning.

My learning with Dubai has been exactly that. In an ever-changing environment, the needle may be continuously moving. But as long as you open yourself to growth, opportunity will continue to present. Invest in a place, invest in its future, and then watch how it reinvests in us.

Sarah Tagger is this year’s JDC Entwine Ralph I. Goldman (RIG) Fellow. A dedicated community builder, enthusiastic global traveler, and passionate storyteller, she received her B.A. Honors in Cultural Anthropology and Global Studies from UC Santa Barbara, and her MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics. Her research during her undergraduate degree was with asylum seekers and refugees at the Red Cross of Madrid, and her master’s thesis focused on the potential for tourism to mitigate conflict between entities and encourage reconciliation. Sarah has been steadfast in her commitment to empowering the Jewish future and enhancing Jewish education, serving in numerous community leadership positions; most recently as the Director of International Campus Strategy for StandWithUs. Sarah is an avid explorer and enthusiastic foodie, and in her free time, has been known to eat and photograph her way around the world.

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