The silver plaque outside the hotel ballroom read, “AMAZING” – and it was.
Within the green neon-lit “Amazing” ballroom of the space age V Hotel Dubai, the Jewish Community of the Emirates (JCE) celebrated its first Pesach event since normalization between Israel and the UAE was signed in September 2020.
The ballroom, with its high ceilings and electric, green-lit walls is characteristic of Dubai’s over-the-top décor.
Inside, around 150 Dubai Jewish residents and visitors, celebrated the Jewish holiday in several languages, including Hebrew, French, Farsi, English and Arabic. Jews in black hats and frock coats could be seen mingling throughout the hotel alongside their Emirati male friends wearing their traditional kandura, the white ankle-length tunic.
The ritual feast was held according to UAE’s social distancing regulations. Each table had its own seder plate and was appropriately spaced from the next, with families and groups of friends sitting together.
A festive mood filled the air as guests, mostly members of the JCE, proceeded with Seder customs, eating matzah and the symbolic foods all prepared by Elli’s Kosher Kitchen, under the supervision of OU Kosher certification agency.
Mashgichim, or kosher supervisors, came from Israel and Iran. Guests could buy additional kosher foods at Elli’s Kosher Kitchen pop-up store outside the ballroom.
This year’s holiday had an extra layer of celebration as Jews in the Gulf country could finally partake in their festivities publicly. In just a few months, the tightly knit community, which previously had to keep their services hidden from the public, was able to freely express their religious faith.
“Passover is the story of release from spiritual and physical bondage, and we really feel that this year,” said Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, the community’s first chief rabbi, told The Forward. “Passover is not only about re-living history, but also about making it. Our community is making its way through the cycle of holidays in the post Abraham Accords era, and each one has had its own unique character accompanied by its own set of ‘firsts.’”
For the first time, Jews in the UAE didn’t hesitate to wear their religious clothing, such as the yarmulke, in public. The JCE, whose members continue to grow in number as more and more Jews, particularly Israelis, move to the Emirates, has gone from experiencing normalization as a new, unprecedented event, to proceeding with daily life in the UAE as a Jew in a normal fashion.
“Today, I go to a hotel and come out of my car with my kippah on my head and the valet man says ‘Shalom’ and so I say ‘Shalom’ back,” Alex Peterfreund, the co-founder of the JCE as well as its cantor, told The Forward. “A few years ago, if someone were to tell me that Jews would be able to wear their kippah in the UAE in public, I would have thought it was science fiction.”
When Peterfreund arrived in the UAE in 2014 from Belgian, it was nearly impossible to have a complete Passover Seder. “If you could have access to a bit of matzah and some grape juice, that was already a lot,” he said. In 2015 he organized the first communal seder of Passover in his two-bedroom apartment.
“We were much more hesitant to be so openly Jewish as we are now,” said Peterfreund. “Now we feel not only accepted, because we were accepted a few years ago, but we are completely open, and everyone feels comfortable about it, including the Emirati people. I am in Dubai, but could be in London, Paris or New York as a Jew.”
The hyper-futuristic setting for such an ancient holiday was oddly appropriate, said Ross Kriel, president of the JCE, summoning the Jewish community’s future following normalization.
“Our community in Dubai is very much about a vital Jewish future in which Jews participate actively in the hopeful story of the UAE,” he said.