On an October morning in 2020 I stood, masked and bundled, outside a coffee shop with a few friends in my Brooklyn neighborhood. I shared the news that I’d be moving to Dubai in a few weeks. Their resounding response: “Wow!”
I answered familiar questions: Have you been there? (Once, on a six-hour layover, but that doesn’t count.) Will you come back? (I fully intend to.) Do you know anyone in Dubai? (Not yet.) And the obvious: What are you doing there?
I arrived in Dubai two months later as JDC Entwine’s Jewish Service Corps Fellow in partnership with the Jewish Council of the Emirates (JCE). I’d build on the work that former Ralph I. Goldman Fellow Jessica Katz began in 2019. I’d been drawn to this role because I wanted to more fully act on the value of Jewish responsibility – something I share with Entwine – and sought to pivot professionally from nonprofit operations towards something personally, yet not geographically, closer to home.
I’m in Dubai to help build Jewish community. Each time I describe this aspiration to others, I consider the question: What makes a community?
I’ve always defined community as the way people connect over a shared identity. My identity has been shaped and strengthened by a range of Jewish experiences. I was raised in the U.S. in a predominately Ashkenazi community and as a member of a Conservative synagogue. I attended Jewish day school with a Modern Orthodox affiliation, and concurrently honored my family’s roots at gatherings of the Yiddish Socialist movement.
As an adult, I have actively participated in egalitarian Jewish communities rooted in social justice. I feel comfortable navigating a variety of Jewish spaces because of the privilege I carry as an able-bodied, cisgender person whose Judaism was rarely, if ever, questioned on the basis of my racial identity.
I’ve been inspired by my parents’ modeling of the importance of diversity and cross-denominational partnership in Jewish practice. And while being Jewish is core to my identity, it’s braided together with about a dozen other identities informing my perspective and choices.
The pandemic has also shaped our expressions of community. Despite distance and loss, we’ve tapped our adaptability to creatively maintain and strengthen human connection. I’ve relied on my networks through book clubs, synagogues, and yoga studios via Zoom. I’ve reconnected with old friends and deepened relationships with family members.
Living in Dubai is a constant reminder that our identities are complex and dynamic.
Living in Dubai is a constant reminder that our identities are complex and dynamic. Nearly 90% of UAE residents are expats whose individual journeys span time zones and languages, professional paths and personal commitments, values and priorities.
I’ve become accustomed to hearing conversations among Jewish community members shift from English to Hebrew and French with a few Yiddish or Arabic words sprinkled in. These breadth of experiences are an opportunity to build kinship and connection, especially when so many other parts of our identities are decidedly different.
Resilience and faith therefore lie at the foundation of this community. I’ve listened as early members of the community describe how they brought a Torah scroll to Dubai in a golf bag and surreptitiously (and creatively!) sought out others with whom they could share intimate Shabbat meals and holiday services. They’ve rejoiced as a community even with less than ten people for a minyan – the quorum required for a Jewish prayer service.
In the community’s early days, the drive to maintain connection with other Jews – wherever and however possible – seems to have superseded some of the ideas of what Judaism should look like.
At this moment, it’s clear that this unique community is eager to envision and create the next chapter of its growth. When I gathered families at a Purim Picnic last month in a local park I noticed the disbelief and gratitude with which parents observed their costumed children publicly celebrating the holiday together. I felt their equal thrill preparing for Passover this year, with the community inundated with orders for kosher for Passover foods and other goods to be shipped from overseas and distributed to families across the UAE.
The JCE, much like the whole of the UAE, is comprised of pioneers. The Jewish community here has received global attention since the signing of the Abraham Accords in September 2020. After years of meeting exclusively in homes and private locations, for the first time last year the community gathered publicly to mark Rosh Hashanah. Just a few months later, the JCE, under the new leadership of the UAE’s first Senior Rabbi, welcomed Emirati friends to join in the lighting of Chanukah candles at a community celebration.
My work as a JSC fellow – supporting the JCE’s growth by strengthening engagement in cultural, social, and educational programming alongside community leaders – builds upon the JCE’s roots as a community that resourcefully grows one person, one story, one day at a time.
At the heart of this effort, in the past and today, is the power of neighbors connecting their stories to one another. Through that connectivity the next chapters are authored and community flourishes. I’m deeply honored to bear witness, create space, and build community even as its definition, like the community itself, is ever-changing.
Reva Gorelick is serving as the JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Dubai, working with the Jewish Council of the Emirates (JCE) to better serve the needs of the Dubai Jewish community as it grows and evolves.
Reva’s work expands upon JDC’s preexisting relationship with the JCE, including a Ralph I. Goldman Fellow placement in 2019. During her ten-month placement, Reva will focus on strengthening the JCE’s community engagement and communication methods, and designing and executing a suite of cultural, social, and educational programming alongside community leaders.
This work is part of JDC’s historic work bolstering Jews and Jewish communities in the Arab world including ongoing efforts in Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt.