ABU DHABI 17 September 2021: When an Arab Muslim woman stood guard a Jew’s prayer at Abu Dhabi Airport, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community in the UAE, felt it “embodied the UAE’s spirit of an ethic of tolerance”.
That feeling of appreciation for tolerance in the UAE was further reinforced later “when I had the privilege to meet His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces,” says Rabbi Yehuda.
Talking with Emirates News Agency on Thursday about his first visit to the UAE in 2009 for an academic duty at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), he said, “It was my first visit to an Arab country. After landing at Abu Dhabi airport in a busy morning, as the morning prayer time was closing in, I did not have a choice but pray at the airport.”
Muslim woman identifies Jewish prayer shawl
He found a place in the airport lounge and took out his prayer shawl. Then a female flight attendant of Etihad Airways, a young Moroccan, came over to him and “spoke to me in Hebrew, recognising me as a Jew by my prayer shawl.”
She knew a little bit of Hebrew because her neighbour in Casablanca had been Jewish when she was growing up. “She helped me find a bit more private place in the busy airport and stood guard as I was praying, and then offered me breakfast afterwards.”
Her kind hospitality made him feel immediately at home.
“She embodies the UAE’s spirit of an ethic of tolerance. I’m sure she thought that she was doing nothing special. She was just doing, of course, anybody in the UAE would do, but its impact was huge, making you feel at home, which means you could be yourself,” he said.
Feeling home means being yourself
“You could be yourself, which means that you are acknowledged and respected for who you are and that you don’t have to try to hide your identity. And that’s the way she made me feel,” Rabbi Sarna added in a Zoom interview from New York.
In 2009, not many Jews were visiting the UAE, he pointed out. Later he realised how the leadership has inculcated such an environment of religious tolerance in everyone living in this country.
“I had the privilege, together with a group representing the Jewish community, to meet with His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. We presented His Highness with a gift during the Year of Tolerance [in 2019] as an expression of gratitude,” he revealed.
He was inspired and touched by that encounter, “because of the way His Highness spoke to us softly, quietly and wisely; and the way he listened to us.”
Rabbi Sarna said that he had the opportunity to meet several world leaders. “But none quite carry themselves with the same sense of humility, responsibility and foresight that His Highness does. I will never ever forget those moments that really touched me,” said the Rabbi on the occasion of the first anniversary of the historic Abraham Accords.
Celebratory mood on first anniversary
The US-brokered deal normalised diplomatic relations between the UAE and Israel on 15th September 2020, which paved the way for Israel establishing diplomatic relations with three more Arab nations – Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
The rabbi attended several events celebrating the first anniversary of Abraham Accords in New York. “The mood is celebratory everywhere. We have achieved so much in one year.”
The Abraham Accords has given the opportunity for Muslims and Jews to know each other more, said the chief rabbi who provides spiritual leadership to the local Jewish community to help build and grow Jewish life in the Gulf.
“That’s the key having as many people get to know each other as possible. We live in a world where we’re coming into contact with more cultures with greater and greater frequency and with higher and higher stakes,” he emphasised.
“As we more can learn that we are all human and listen to each other’s story, we will have a better planet.”
One of most diverse Jewish communities in world
Around 1000 Jews living in the UAE represent one of the most diverse Jewish communities in the world as they are coming from across the globe, Rabbi Sarna said. “Each one carries their own culture and tradition.”
Realising the diverse food habits in the community, they have started compiling a cookbook of those wide varieties of recipes. “Food is not just about consumption, it’s really about history and culture. The diversity has manifested in the food, that’s interesting.”
“We’ve been developing our Jewish community infrastructure so quickly kosher food, ways of gathering and different kind of institutions that we’re putting together,” he continued.
Although it is a small community, “we receive thousands of Jewish tourists from across the globe who have started visiting the Emirates since the Abraham Accords was signed.”
He first arrived in the UAE in 2019 through his position at New York University (NYU), where he serves as the university chaplain and the executive director of the Bronfman Centre for Jewish Student Life.
Through his work and frequent visits to NYU Abu Dhabi’s campus, Rabbi Sarna connected with the UAE and later he was asked to lead the Jewish community in religious and spiritual matters and serve as a representative to UAE government and authorities.