1st rabbi of Riyadh says local Jews emerging from shadows in Saudi Arabia

Rabbi Yaakov Israel Herzog serves Jewish community in the Saudi kingdom; 'There was this perception that it would be forbidden'

Emily Frances, i24NEWS|
As headlines in Israel swirl with reports of progress toward a normalization agreement between Jerusalem and Riyadh, one man isn't waiting for peace to become official.
<< Follow Ynetnews on Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | TikTok >>
Read more:
Rabbi Yaakov Israel Herzog, a Chabad emissary, is already in Saudi Arabia and watching the local Jewish population emerge from the shadows.
1 View gallery
הרב יעקב ישראל הרצוג בסעודיה
הרב יעקב ישראל הרצוג בסעודיה
Rabbi Yaakov Israel Herzog poses for a photo at a shopping mall in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
(Fayez Nureldine / AFP)
Herzog decided to establish the first Chabad house in Riyadh to serve the thousands of Jews from other countries who live there, and appointed himself what he says is the first rabbi in the kingdom’s modern history.
“There are many Jewish expats coming to the kingdom to work,” Herzog told i24NEWS, explaining that out of 75,000 Americans working in Saudi Arabia, about 1% are Jewish, and more are coming from France, the United Kingdom and South America.
In total, he said “about 15,000 Jewish people work in the kingdom on different employment contracts.” After realizing the size of the Jewish community, the rabbis says he asked himself: “Who is taking care of the needs of these people?”
“There was nobody there, and there was this perception that it would be forbidden to do something like this in Saudi Arabia,” he told i24NEWS about embarking on the project.
“After I aligned myself with what I want to do, and the current situation in Saudi Arabia and Islam in general, I realized that with the Jewish people they won’t have a problem.”
Herzog talked about the different services he aims to provide as the Jewish spiritual leader in Riyadh, such as leading prayer services and hosting holiday meals, and the limits he has encountered.
"Of course, on Passover we don't have wine at our seder, we have grape juice," Herzog said, since alcohol is banned in the kingdom. “We basically looked at the current Saudi law book, and we tested the waters.”
It’s now the Chabad house’s second year of activity operating out of a rented space where they host prayers and holiday meals, and conduct general outreach. Herzog adds that “there’s a nice turnout. We didn't reach everybody yet, but the more people attend, the word gets around.”
As for the next steps, he said they “want to build a proper center, a proper mikvah ritual bath, a synagogue, a day school for children, and whatever a Jewish person in the kingdom would need in order to have a fulfilling Jewish life.”
“When I’m in Saudi Arabia this is the way I walk around,” the Chabad rabbi explained, referring to his traditional ultra-Orthodox Jewish garb. “Everywhere I go, in Sunni areas, Shia areas, all over the country, the Saudis are very welcoming to other cultures, to other religions. They have a very deep knowledge of who the Jewish people are, what the Jewish people are all about.”
“When they mention that we have common enemies, I try to bring them back to the point that we are family. That’s the main thing and that’s what we need to focus on,” Herzog said.
“Enemies can change, but family is family, and our mutual rich history and genetics is what brings us together. Thank God, they have been very welcoming and very respectful,” he concluded.
The commenter agrees to the privacy policy of Ynet News and agrees not to submit comments that violate the terms of use, including incitement, libel and expressions that exceed the accepted norms of freedom of speech.