A Light Unto the Nations: OTS Rabbi Serves Historic Role in the United Arab Emirates

Rabbi Ben de Toledo, participant in the Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary, and his wife Yael recently began a historic role as the first ever Rabbinic couple-in-Residence at the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue in the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi, capitol of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

de Toledo
(right to left) Sheik Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan – UAE Minister of State for Tolerance; UAE Chief Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, Rabbi Ben de Toledo, Rabbi in Residence of Moses ben Maimon Synagogue, Abrahamic Family House; Rabbanit Yael de Toledo, Rabbanit in Residence, Moses ben Maimon Synagogue, Abrahamic Family House

In addition to being home to the synagogue, the Abrahamic Family House complex also includes a mosque and a church, with the intent of serving as a beacon of understanding, coexistence and peace among people of different faiths.

A few months into his position, we spoke with Rabbi de Toledo about the role, the community, what it’s like working as a rabbi in the UAE, and his vision for the future.

Q: Tell us about your role being a Jewish rabbi in a Muslim country.

A: There are three components to the role. I’m working to build community among the 300 Jews living in Abu Dhabi. I’m meeting with Jewish visitors from around the world. And there is a significant interfaith component, as I also meet many non-Jewish visitors; around 7,000 people weekly come through the Abrahamic Family House.

We have a tremendous opportunity to be “a light unto the nations.” Many Jews who wouldn’t necessarily go to a synagogue in their community come to visit an Arab country and are suddenly moved to visit the synagogue, put on a kippah, touch the Torah, or say tehillim with me.

Among non-Jewish visitors, many have never met a Jew, certainly not a rabbi. Even if they want to visit a synagogue, in many places today the extent of security makes it difficult. Here, they can visit the synagogue, touch the Torah scroll, ask questions. Last week, an Indian woman who had just graduated from university knocked on my door, with a list of 15 thoughtful questions on Judaism. She had never met anyone she could discuss them with before.

Rabbi Ben de Toledo

Q: Why was it important for the UAE to build a synagogue and support Jewish life?

A: Tolerance is very important in the UAE. There is a Minister of Tolerance, and 2019 was considered “The Year of Tolerance,” culminating with the creation of a document called “The Document of Human Fraternity,” which lays out fundamental principles of tolerance, acceptance and embrace of all of the communities that call UAE home.

The UAE is home to people representing 200 nationalities and the country seeks to not only accept them, but to help them thrive. The Abrahamic Family House was created in that spirit; housing the synagogue, a church and a mosque.

I am officially an employee of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. The synagogue and all of our activities are official government programs, paid for by the government, which is fascinating and also offers opportunities for important cultural exchanges. For example, they were shocked by our food bill for Friday night dinners and Shabbat morning kiddushes. We had to explain the centrality of food in Jewish life.

Q: Describe the Jewish community.

A: There are 300 Jews in Abu Dhabi, all ex-pats from other countries, and an extended family from Yemen who moved here two years ago. Whereas ex-pats typically move somewhere for two or three years and then return to their home country, many of the people who live here really love the lifestyle and will likely stay for many years. The Jews who choose to live here tend not to be fully observant, but everyone wants community. They want to connect.

When I first began my role, we had to decide how often to hold services, unsure if people would come. In the end, we have a daily minyan and Shabbat services every week. Many people are more engaged Jewishly than they were in their previous communities. We’ve started a Sunday school program and a bar/bat mitzvah preparatory program.

Rabbi Ben de Toledo action UAE

It’s important to us to be very open and welcoming. It’s actually part of our mandate from the government, which insists that it be a “Jewish” synagogue — a synagogue for all Jews.  We follow halakha, and find ways to accommodate and include people from all streams of Judaism.

Q: This is a historic role. Who is guiding you?

A: One of the reasons I chose to study at Ohr Torah Stone’s Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary was because alongside the halakhic study, I knew I would also gain concrete tools for leading a community. Rabbi Eliyahu Gatenu, who heads the Straus Semicha Program, knows what it means to work in a small Jewish community, and to use hochma (wisdom), sechel (common sense) and menchlicheit (kindness) to guide people. I am touch with him every week. His constant support is one of the reasons I’m still standing.

Q: What’s your vision for the community moving forward?

A: The first thing you notice in the Jewish community here is how many children there are. The community is growing. Kosher restaurants are opening and more housing is becoming available near the synagogue, which means more Jews will move here. I want the community to grow, not just in size, but in Jewish education and commitment.

We want to be part of developing rich Jewish educational offerings where people can be strongly connected to the Jewish community and to their peers. A year ago, I might have thought this was impossible in an Arab Gulf State. Being here has completely changed my perspective.


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