US/World News

Muslims in Gulf spark interest in learning about High Holidays

(JNS) With Jews around the world set to begin the High Holiday season, the small Jewish communities in six Gulf states, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are planning to take part publicly in some of the traditional holiday rituals for the first time in decades. This newfound openness is a direct result of the Abraham Accords signed a year ago between Israel, the United States, the UAE and Bahrain, followed by Sudan and Morocco.

Ebrahim D. Nonoo, leader of Bahrain’s Jewish community and president of the newly founded Association of Gulf Jewish communities (AGJC), whose goal is to develop Jewish life in the region, said that “the best thing about Rosh Hashanah this year is that we are able now to advertise it. We are saying ‘Happy New Year’ to our Bahraini friends and government officials. It’s beautifully really out in the open now.”  

Nonoo is hopeful that the community will soon have a full-time rabbi and make greater use of the local synagogue in the city of Manama, Bahrain’s capital. He said that more local Jews”—he estimates 50 community members—“are coming to the synagogue and want to see what’s going on.”

The largest Rosh Hashanah event in the region took place in Dubai, the UAE city that boasts the largest Jewish community, with an estimated 500 practicing Jews. Alex Peterfreund, a co-founder of Dubai’s Jewish community, its cantor and an AGJC board member who arrived in the country from Antwerp, Belgium, in 2014, said the community hosted services and kosher meals for several hundred guests in a local hotel under the leadership of Rabbi Dr. Elie Abadie, the Jewish Council of the Emirates’ (JCE) senior and resident rabbi.

Like Nonoo, Peterfreund said “the biggest difference between this Rosh Hashanah and in previous years is that we were a group of Jews coming together in a discreet way, and now it’s much more open and people feel more comfortable.” Peterfreund said another big difference is that this year “the main focus is the interaction between Muslims and Jews. … When you sit and explain why you eat the head of a fish, pomegranate, apples and honey—what we have been doing for thousands of years—and you feel how the locals are curious and eager to interact with us, this is an amazing experience. …The same way that we have learned about Ramadan and their traditions, they will be a full part of our festivities.”

Main Photo: Blowing shofar in the Gulf to mark the arrival of the Jewish New Year 5782. Credit: Association of Gulf Jewish Communities.

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