The Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashanah – was celebrated last year mere days after the signing of the Abraham Accords.
The historic U.S.-brokered normalization agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain moved emotions and moved markets. They spawned a frantic wave of visits by curious tourists and businesspeople.
Israelis quickly made the region a hot-spot travel destination, and a number have relocated permanently to take up posts created by new business in the wake of the Abraham Accords.
On the eve of this year’s Rosh Hashanah, available data and conversations with those in the know show what the accords have not done, at least not yet: spurred many American Jews, or Americans of any background, to make the Gulf their permanent home.
A U.S. State Department official says that the American government hasn’t tracked figures related to expatriates who have settled in the Gulf post-Abraham Accords, and certainly has no readily available information as to any of their reasons for going.
Inquiries placed with the Jewish Council of the Emirates, the Jewish Community Center of the UAE, the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities and the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States failed to identify any other American Jew outside the rabbinical sector who permanently relocated from the U.S. to the Gulf following the signing of the Abraham Accords, though nearly all suggested that a growing number of people have made exploratory relocations to the region, chasing business possibilities and educational avenues.
Fitness instructor Niki Kleinberger is getting set for her second Rosh Hashanah as a Dubai resident. The New Orleans native moved to Chicago for a job opportunity, but was enticed to Dubai in February 2020 by a fitness studio that brings in American instructors on three-month to six-month contracts. She decided to stay on well beyond that.
“I was offered a job here and it was a very quick decision. I was one of the last ones brought in before the pandemic started. Three weeks after I arrived, everything shut down,” Kleinberger says from Dubai.
“Before moving, I didn’t know a Jewish community existed here. It turns out I feel more Jewish in Dubai than I ever felt in America,” she said.
Kleinberger grew up in a Reform Jewish setting, going to Friday evening services with her sister through high school. She says her home life didn’t include much Judaism and, after graduating high school in 2011, she fell out of touch with the faith. She wasn’t exactly open about her Jewishness when she moved to Dubai.
“This is still a fairly new reality for a lot of people. The COVID pandemic and related restrictions haven’t exactly allowed people to easily uproot their lives, and we get a sense that those exploring a move to the Gulf region – for religious, cultural or business purposes, simply as a result of the Abraham Accords – are looking to dip their toes in the waters before leaping in,” the official says.
While the normalization agreements opened up a new world of business and cultural opportunities, almost all Americans trying to take advantage have, at most, temporarily set up shop in the likes of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Manama.
Journalist Michal Divon, a Canadian-Israeli who had been living and working in New York City, was hired in March as a senior editor and producer for the Dubai-based Khaleej Times, the UAE’s longest-running English publication.
In June, the American Jewish Committee opened an Abu Dhabi office and named veteran U.S. diplomat Marc Sievers as the bureau’s director. Sievers served the State Department in ten countries, including Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iraq and Oman.
“It wasn’t as if I was afraid. There are so many expats from around the world living here that most people just assumed I was German or Dutch based on my last name. But, I connected with Chabad here in July. They were open and welcome, and I became more interested in learning,” Kleinberger said, referring to the Orthodox Jewish dynasty that promotes outreach, especially to secular Jews.
Chabad’s U.S.-born Dubai rabbi, Levi Duchman, was accused in 2020 of trying to muscle out the longer established Jewish community in the UAE, just as the community’s existence became public knowledge in the months leading up to the Abraham Accords.
“The services were small, but after the Abraham Accords, more Israelis and Jews came to visit and attended. It got so big that Chabad expanded to two other locations,” she said.
Canadian-born and California-bred Sarah Tagger is spending her first Rosh Hashanah in the Gulf. As part of a fellowship with the New York-based American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) relief organization, she is spending a year working on behalf of JDC Entwine, JDC’s young adult engagement platform, working with and learning from multiple Jewish communities around the world.
During the first few months of the year, she assisted on two major JDC disaster relief initiatives. Tagger has spent the summer in Dubai working with the Jewish community there.
“During my time here, I’ve connected with local community members on the ground who are involved in all aspects of Jewish life. Some have been here for decades, others for just a few weeks, but it’s evident there’s a new wave of Jewish involvement in Dubai,” Tagger s.
Tagger is helping to develop the program strategy for the Abraham’s Miracles Centre for Learning (AMCL), the UAE’s first-ever Jewish cultural center, which will be a place to educate and celebrate the community and for intercultural engagement with individuals from all backgrounds. She said that during her stay in Dubai, it has become evident that the Abraham Accords have given the Jewish movement momentum.
“In the short time I’ve been here, I have seen a really exciting burst of Jewish life in the city. There are plans for all sorts of programming and engagement developing constantly and a general buzz and excitement around being involved in a new chapter of Jewish life. I feel a palpable sense of enthusiasm for what is to come – opportunities for new growth, community engagement, and an all-around enhancement of Jewish life,” she said.
It is likely that more Jews will welcome Rosh Hashanah in the Gulf this year than at any time since the expulsion of Jews from Arab and Muslim lands, which ended in the 1970s. None of the Gulf states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) has a large Jewish population. About 1,000 Jews – all expats – live in the UAE, with a handful more in Oman and Qatar, and around 20 in Kuwait, mainly tied to the U.S. naval base there. Only Bahrain has native Gulf Jews – around 50 of them.
One of the many tests of the lasting durability of the Abraham Accords will be whether it spawns a true exchange of people. Israelis are flocking to the Gulf. American Jews and others from the U.S .seeking to take advantage of the avenues opened up by the Abraham Accords don’t appear quite ready to make that leap permanent, yet. But all indications are that there is a growing willingness to explore the possibility.
Article published with the permission of The Media Line
First published: 13:44, 09.07.21