First Full-Time Rabbi Is Sign of New Times in UAE
Physician, educator and scholar poised to assume pulpit as ‘normalcy’ kicks in
One of the first manifestations of the Abraham Accords – the peace agreements signed by Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – is the appointment of the UAE’s first resident full-time spiritual leader for the Jewish congregation pending final government approval. Rabbi Elie Abadie, a physician, educator and scholar, spoke of his journey with The Media Line’s Felice Friedson.
The Media Line: Welcome to The Media Line.
Rabbi Abadie: Thank you very much! It is a pleasure for me to be here with you.
TML: It is a pleasure to have you. Did you ever dream you would find yourself back in the Middle East having been born in Lebanon?
Rabbi Abadie: Yes, I definitely had a dream of being back in the Middle East, but not as a rabbi, but to visit the era of peace and tranquility and normalization of that area.
TML: What are you feeling at the moment?
Rabbi Abadie: I feel ecstatic. I feel nostalgic. I feel like I want to be part of this beautiful new paradigm. A change and also a brighter future in that area.
TML: This is not your first time to visit the UAE.
Rabbi Abadie: No.
TML: Can you share your history?
Rabbi Abadie: Yes, of course, of course. My first visit to the UAE was almost two years ago when I was invited by a very dear friend of mine who has traveled to that area for over 30 years in business and in other issues. He invited me to come and to introduce me to the community.
TML: You were there when there was a Torah that was given in the community. Can you just elaborate a little further on what happened then?
Rabbi Abadie: Right. So, this very good friend of mine wanted to bring a Sefer Torah [Torah scroll] to the community. I am a sofer [scribe], and although I did not write the Sefer Torah itself, I came with that Sefer Torah so I can conclude it. And so we brought the Sefer Torah not complete, and I completed that Sefer Torah in a beautiful ceremony that we had.
TML: You are founding rabbi and rabbi emeritus of the Edmund J. Safra Synagogue in New York. Are the New Yorkers lining up to buy second homes in Dubai?
Rabbi Abadie: It’s a very interesting question. I have heard from so many people from my community and people who know me – they all have been saying, “We are following you. We want to be in Dubai. We’ll be there soon.” Yes, I believe there will be some sort of migration. I’m not sure exactly how many people but definitely a lot of people will be coming, if not to live there, then at least to visit for a longer period of time.
TML: Rabbi, growing up in Lebanon, did Jews live with Lebanese people or fear them?
Rabbi Abadie: I never feared them. However, we were very careful. In my building, we had the entire spectrum of Lebanese society, religions, and social groups. So, we had Jews in my building. We had Sunni Muslims. We had Shi’ite Muslims. We had Druze. We had Christians. And we had Armenians. And we were all living in harmony, in peace. Of course, we had to be careful with our love of Israel or with our conversations about Israel. We were Lebanese Jews, or Syrian refugee Jews, as many of us were. We had friends [and] my friends in that building were Druze and so we did not even fear. However, we lived with caution and concern.
TML: What year was this?
Rabbi Abadie: We left in 1971.
TML: The first 10 years of your life, you were living in Lebanon?
Rabbi Abadie: Correct. I was born in Beirut and I lived in Beirut.
TML: Do you speak Arabic?
Rabbi Abadie: I do.
TML: How many Jews were living there at that time?
Rabbi Abadie: At that time, there were probably 3,000 – 5,000 Jews in the mid-1960s, [and] many of them left after the 1967 [Six-Day] War, and many of them continued to leave throughout ’68, ‘69, ‘70, ‘71, so probably by ‘71 when we left, there were probably less than 3,000 Jews.
TML: There are very few remaining?
Rabbi Abadie: Today I would say you have less than 30 people, and [they] are not organized as a community. [It is] not known very well where they are, and I definitely don’t know and don’t think they are living together even, so they might be spread around the country.
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TML: Can you speak about how your family left and what was the circumstance at that time?
Rabbi Abadie: Well, as many of the Jewish families were leaving because we knew that Lebanon notwithstanding their freedoms and their Western orientation of their culture and their politics, it still was a concerning country given the ethnic balance that they had between Christian Maronites and Sunni Muslims, and Sunni Muslims and Druze. Many Jews began leaving, and then some Jews even left before that, because the first civil war was in 1968, before I was born. And after that, the civil war remained again between Christians and Muslims, and so many of the Jewish families understood that eventually if there will be a real civil war and it will be devastating for the country, it will not be safe.
In 1958, the American Sixth Fleet came to the country at the petition of the president of Lebanon, Camille Chamoun, to maintain peace and they were able to succeed, but we knew that that would eventually not be possible. So, after Black September when the PLO was expelled from Jordan – actually it was a civil war in Jordan itself – Lebanon was forced to receive them, and suddenly we started seeing in the streets guerillas with khaki uniforms, weapons, Kalashnikovs and things like that. As we understood, as the Jewish community understood, was that Lebanon would fall sooner rather than later.
TML: How did you get out?
Rabbi Abadie: So that was a catalyst. We got out because, during that period in 1971, my father was the rabbi there together with two other rabbis, [and] was also a member of the Beit Din, the Jewish courts. Their picture, the picture of those three rabbis, was plastered in many mosques and in many Lebanese journals with the caption ‘These are the Zionist agents.’ And you know, if you have that term in an Arab country you are basically a target, so that really made the community very fearful [and] very concerned. My family took those articles and that picture and sent it to Mexico where my oldest brother was living since 1965. We begged him to try and take us out of Lebanon and have the Mexican government accept us as refugees.
Now, in Lebanon, though I was born there, I never really had Lebanese citizenship because the law until today in Lebanon that is on the book is that a refugee, [a] son of [a] refugee, [a] grandson of [a] refugee, [a] great-grandson of [a] refugee, will never become a Lebanese citizen. They will always maintain the status of refugee, and so we did not have a passport to travel anywhere in the world. And so, the only thing we had was something known as laissez-passer, a travel document to leave Lebanon. However, no country will accept us, even as tourists, because the moment we leave Lebanon, we won’t be able to come back, and they [the visiting country] would have to accept us as residents in the country. Once my brother processed that request, the Mexican government accepted us as refugees, and of course, we left the country.
TML: You’ve spoken extensively about Jews living in Arab countries and again about being a Jewish refugee. Why has this issue been sidelined in the United Nations?
Rabbi Abadie: Unfortunately, I don’t have the mind of United Nations leaders but we all know that there is ample discrimination against the State of Israel and Jewish issues at the United Nations for decades so I would have to assume that this is part of that policy that they always maintained.
TML: I’ve spoken with a number of your congregants in the United Arab Emirates and have written about the growth of the Jewish community there. What do you see as the growth potential for the UAE Jewish community?
Rabbi Abadie: Well, I believe the growth is not finite. The growth is very exponential given the welcoming, the freedom, the air of tolerance, coexistence and harmony between every segment of society in the United Arab Emirates. I think the UAE is going to become the new safe haven, not just for Jews but for many peoples persecuted around the world. I believe certainly that business will increase over there. Again, I will speak just about the Jewish community. Many Jews will travel to the UAE to do business, to expand their businesses, and that will make them stay for a longer period of time if not stay completely. I also do believe that the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe will lead many Jews in Europe that their ancestry or their origin was from Arab countries or North African countries, will probably choose the UAE as the new place to live and settle, given the culture, the language that they speak or their parents speak. And so, they will feel more comfortable settling in the UAE than in any other country in the world. Even in the United States, as you know, the rise in anti-Semitism has been very palpable and people who choose not to go to Israel for whatever reason, they might choose the UAE as the new place to settle.
TML: Right now, you see the Abraham Accords and much happening as being very positive, but to everything that goes well, there are always concerns. What are they?
Rabbi Abadie: Well, I think concern number one in my mind is the naysayers. Those concern me, because naysayers, they will always be in anything good, they are always going to find a small segment of people that are naysayers and they are going to say, “No, it’s not good. No, it’s not real. It’s not going to become successful.” So that’s my major concern. Other concerns, I really don’t have. I just believe if both sides and the entire region are aboard and on board of this normalization, I think we are going to have bigger and better surprises in the future.
TML: How many rabbis currently are there that are going to be operating as rabbis in the United Arab Emirates?
Rabbi Abadie: I’m not exactly sure. I know so far, I would be the senior rabbi. There is Rabbi [Yehuda] Sarna, who is the chief rabbi, but he is not a resident of the UAE. I understand that there is a Chabad representative there, and that’s all I know that I am aware of.
TML: How will you accommodate both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi background Jews? And please explain that to the audience.
Rabbi Abadie: Of course! There used to be a time in which Sephardi Judaism or Sephardic community and [the] Ashkenazic community were very far and separated geographically [and] traditionally. However, in the last 70 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, those two communities, not only in Israel actually, [but] all over the world, especially in the New World, have commingled, have “intermarried” amongst themselves. Even my wife is Ashkenazic and I have studied in the Ashkenazi yeshiva even in my elementary and high school [years] in Mexico City. It was a Mizrahi-Ashkenazi school so those differences have become much, much smaller.
There is a great awareness of each other’s different customs and traditions. In Israel, for example, the Sephardic tradition, the Mizrahi music and art have become the national music of Israel and so there is greater recognition and knowledge of each other’s communities. I do believe that eventually, they will be one people and one nation so my knowledge, and I actually have led Ashkenazi services in Ashkenazi communities within the past. All the rituals, I know it, so I’ll be able to combine both and be able to help both communities in the UAE – each one can maintain their beautiful customs and traditions.
TML: I’m glad you brought up your wife. So, how does she feel about moving to an Arab land?
Rabbi Abadie: Well, having been married to me for more than three decades, she has learned Arabic. She understands it. She speaks it; albeit not the classical Arabic that she speaks and understands but the colloquial Middle Eastern Arabic. So, she learned from day one if I may say, how to cook Middle Eastern dishes, all very authentic, so she definitely will not feel strange there at all.
TML: Twenty-eight flights weekly just from Israel to Dubai are commencing. Are bar mitzvahs and weddings lining up already?
Rabbi Abadie: I hope so and I believe so. We certainly want to be there for that first bar mitzvah or that first wedding. It will be a momentous occasion and memorable and historic. Yes, I believe that that will happen very, very soon. Even considering my own son who got engaged this past Sunday, maybe that will be the first Jewish wedding in the UAE.
TML: Rabbi Elie Abadie, one last question: Where do you begin? There are so many things happening because of the Abraham Accords on business levels, on tourism levels, on cultural levels. They are numerous and it’s such a rapid pace as I mentioned earlier. Where do you begin?
Rabbi Abadie: Well, first and foremost, my responsibility is to the community there and so therefore the first thing I’m going to focus [on] is community building: building the foundation of community institutions, building the community, being acceptable to all the members – a pastoral service, a rabbinic service as a religious leader and also a community leader. So, I’m going to have to tackle everything that’s going to come up assuming we have plans of what I’m going to do first and what I’m going to do second, but sometimes issues will face me that I need to address them. So, as I said, first and foremost community building, setting up the foundations of a great Jewish community, a community that will be welcoming to many more; increase the dialogue between Jews and Muslims, interfaith dialogue; participate in the life of Dubai and the United Arab Emirates; be part of many community-wide government participations of events; be there to attend to [the] Jewish community.
TML: Rabbi Elie Abadie, pleasure speaking with you, much luck and thank you for joining The Media Line!
Rabbi Abadie: Thank you very much! It’s been a pleasure, and I’m looking forward to this wonderful historic opportunity.