Beis Moshiach Magazine/By Avrohom Rainitz
Aseres Yimei Teshuva 5771. The international airport at Dubai is one of the most congested in the world. Customs officials there are used to seeing all sorts of tourists, but this type of tourist is one they never saw before. More correctly, the strange contents of their suitcases, particularly the package they held as though it contained a treasure, which they refused to place on the ground for even a minute, caught their attention.
They demanded that the cover of the strange package be removed. They saw something made of two rolls of leather, covered by embroidered velvet, and two silver covered sticks coming out of the rolls. They squinted, puzzled, and asked the visitors to explain what it is.
The tourists, who were afraid to tell the customs officials that it was a Torah scroll, the most sacred object of the Jewish people, tried to evade them by saying it was a unique book. The officials insisted on it being opened and when they saw the strange lettering that was unfamiliar to them, they asked: What language is this?
The tourists knew that if they said it was Hebrew, the officials would become even more suspicious and they might be expelled from the country. They said, it’s a special language, like Arabic (l’havdil) that is read from right to left.
Fortunately, the customs agents accepted this answer and they went on to examine the suitcases. The lulavim, hadasim, aravos, siddurim, and even Moshiach flags flew under the radar. Just one thing bothered them – why did these peculiar tourists need to bring in lemons?
“What do you need these lemons for?” they asked in genuine bewilderment. “We have plenty like these here.”
The tourists of course could not correct them and say they are esrogim which they needed for the dalet minim, because then it would become clear that they had come for religious reasons.
“It’s a very special lemon,” they said, and they handed one to him to smell and see how special this “lemon” was. The official realized it wasn’t the usual lemon that he was familiar with and he asked how much it cost.
“Five dollars,” said the tourist, and the man was so surprised.
If the tourist would have said the truth, that this “lemon” cost a hundred dollars, the official would certainly want to cut it open to see what was inside that was worth so much.
After many tense moments, customs released the odd tourists. The tourists left the arrivals terminal for the line of taxis. Outside, two local Jews waited for them who greeted them with delight. The tension dissipated. “We felt that this was a pivotal moment. Two Lubavitchers arrived in Dubai and set up the first Jewish community in the United Arab Emirates,” Yisroel B, our man in Dubai, told me.
For six years now, his activities are carried out under a heavy cover of secrecy as he tries to stay in the shadows and not arouse the ire of the local Islamic government. He agreed to talk to us on condition that we did not reveal his name and picture, nor the names of others who are active there.
FROM SRI LANKA TO DUBAI
When Shimon and Sharon, a Jewish couple from London, told their families they were moving to Dubai for business reasons, they were all taken aback. They tried dissuading them from this dangerous move. But Sharon, who comes from an Arab country, did not think it was dangerous.
When the couple moved to Dubai they had to hide their Jewish identity on the street. They felt like Esther in the story of the Megilla. In their first year there, they discovered a few other Jewish families living in the Arab principality and friendships developed.
A year later, while they awaited the birth of their first child, they began to feel a deep need for an organized Jewish community. The approaching holidays intensified the feeling that they were lacking, and when they traveled to Sri Lanka on vacation, they headed for the Chabad House. They told the shliach, R’ Menachem Mendel Crombie, about how they felt.
R’ Crombie encouraged them to form a community but the couple said they couldn’t do it alone. They needed outside help. “If you send us rabbis for the High Holidays, we would be happy to pull together and arrange a minyan,” they promised.
This wasn’t easy, since Dubai has no diplomatic ties with Israel and you cannot enter the country with an Israeli passport. So R’ Crombie looked for a bachur with American or European citizenship.
He found two bachurim who were willing to undertake this unusual shlichus. Yisroel B has an American passport and Shuki G has a European passport. Despite the foreign passports, traveling to Dubai entailed a degree of danger, as a few months earlier, Mahmoud Abdel Rauf al-Mabhouh, a senior Hamas military commander, was assassinated in Dubai. This was attributed by many to the Mossad. Following his death, the police chief in Dubai said no more Israeli tourists would be allowed to enter the country, even if they had foreign passports and even if there was only a suspicion that they were Israeli. The two bachurim also hold Israeli passports, but they decided to take the chance and fly with only their foreign passports.
A PERIPATETIC COMMUNITY
The United Arab Emirates is a Moslem country which forbids those holding Israeli passports to enter. Weren’t you afraid to travel there, for a religious-Jewish reason, no less?
As far as Israeli citizenship, we weren’t afraid because we did not take our Israeli passports, and in our foreign passports there were no hints to our connection with Eretz Yisroel. We were more nervous about religious activities – did this Moslem country allow Jewish religious activity or was it a crime. We looked into it and did not arrive at clear answers. On the one hand, there were rumors about a group of Jewish businessmen who were invited to Dubai by a local sheik who even gave them a Torah scroll that he possessed. But we could not verify that story. On the other hand, we got the impression that the Moslem government would not allow public Jewish religious activities.
Now we know that the government officially allows religious activity even for non-Moslem groups, and even allows the operation of a religious center after submitting a formal request. But the Jews in Dubai prefer not to open an official place to pray, because Arabs from all over the world can be found in Dubai and terrorists could freely enter a shul and G-d forbid, do something terrible. So they prefer to avoid davening in an established structure.
The local government knows about the Jewish community that has developed in recent years. Dubai’s secret police tracks any activities that deviate from the norm, and today, I have no doubt that they are aware of our activities. At one of our encounters with the community, a senior businessman attended who is very close to the sheik of Dubai and it is reasonable to assume that he told the sheik about the Jewish community that he met.
But the first time we went, we flew into the unknown. We did not know whether we would be allowed to bring in Jewish religious items since promoting religious literature is absolutely forbidden. If violated, one would face sentencing, imprisonment and expulsion because of conduct that offends Islam. But we were mainly afraid that by being identified as Jews, we would also be suspected of being Israelis and then we would be immediately expelled from the country.
In a prior talk with Shimon and Sharon, the couple who initiated our trip, they warned us to hide any blatant Jewish symbols so they wouldn’t be suspicious of us at the airport. So we arrived wearing baseball caps, as innocent tourists. Boruch Hashem, aside from the interrogation by customs officials, all went smoothly and we left the terminal and met the couple.
BUILDING A COMMUNITY
If there is no shul or other community center, where and how did you meet the members of the community?
We arrived two days before Yom Kippur which was on Shabbos that year. Our first encounter with the community took place in a large apartment on the 32nd floor of an exclusive hi-rise building. It overlooks the artificial archipelago Jumeirah, the first of three artificial archipelagos that were developed off the coast of Dubai. There, opposite the stunning view that symbolizes the city, is where the first Jewish community in Dubai was born.
We informed Shimon and Sharon and all their acquaintances about the minyan we planned for Yom Tov, and dozens of people came on the holy day. The highlight, of course, was N’ila. We had over fifty people! What they had in common was their amazement when they walked in and saw so many Jews in one place. Every Jewish article excited them. And when they saw that we even had a Torah scroll, they realized that this is for real; the Jewish community in Dubai is a reality.
After concluding with “L’shana HaBaa B’Yerushalayim,” we burst into song and all the men joined in dancing. Most members of the community are businessmen who came to Dubai for a specific amount of time, but there are some Jews who live in Dubai for decades already. One of them came to Dubai at the age of five. His father is a Syrian Jew and his mother a Jewess from Lebanon. When his parents moved to Dubai they were so afraid of being found out as Jews that they kept telling him the importance of hiding his Jewish identity. His Jewish name is Levi but his parents also called him by an Arab name, Tarik, and made sure to use it.
When he became more aware of what it means to be Jewish, he became sick of his double life and one day he decided to reveal his Jewish identity to all. He began telling his friends that he is a Jew. There were so-called friends who left him following this revelation, but overall, he felt much better. He started putting t’fillin on every weekday, became careful about kashrus, and he tries to observe Shabbos. Today he is one of the pillars of the community.
In this community, nobody is on the sidelines. Everyone is important and each one tries to contribute toward the good of the community to the best of his or her abilities. Every additional new member to the community has a story about how he discovered it. The members of the community have developed a sixth sense to identify Jews and include them in the community.
Over the years, we’ve reached hundreds of Jews and today the community has two Sifrei Torah, one a donation from a Jewish businessman and the other one is on loan from a shul in London. On every visit, we bring sefarim to add to the Jewish library which moves from house to house along with the community.
EXPANDING ACTIVITIES IN ABU DHABI
How long did you stay on your first visit?
As I described earlier, our first visit was to the unknown and so we weren’t set up to stay longer than a week. We left Dubai after Yom Kippur, after leaving the dalet minim with the community, tied together properly, and siddurim and holiday brochures.
The next visit was on Chanuka and it was for eight days, in the course of which we visited the homes of people in the community and made some Chanuka parties, each one in another house. We brought fifty menorahs with us and a lot of dreidels to give to the kids. At the main party there was great excitement as about fifty Jews gathered together. They all lit menorahs and the children played with the dreidels. There was the feeling that the Jewish light vanquished the darkness.
We told them about the Rebbe’s Besuras Ha’Geula and how our generation is the generation of Geula and in one moment, all our galus reality will change and even in Dubai they will know about the malchus of Melech HaMoshiach.
On that visit, like on every trip there, we brought siddurim with us. This is the way to fill up the community’s library with sifrei kodesh which, of course, are not available for purchase in this Muslim country. Unfortunately, they stopped us at customs and wanted to know what these books are. Since we were afraid to say they are religious books, and customs was concerned it was material to be used to incite against the government, they confiscated them all and said we could get them back when we left the country.
During Chanukah we expanded our outreach and traveled to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. There is a branch of New York University there and many of the lecturers and professors are Jewish. We went there by bus, an hour and a half ride, and were able to arrange a Chanuka party for about forty people. It is hard to describe how spiritually inspired they were. They could not believe they were sitting at a Chanuka party in Abu Dhabi, hearing about the spiritual significance of Chanuka and about the spiritual victory that will soon happen with the Geula.
Is it not scary to travel on a bus full of Arabs in a Moslem country?
You’d be surprised, but most people living in Dubai are not citizens of the UAE, but foreign workers from India and Pakistan. Most of the people we met on the street were not Arabs.
But even the Arabs who live there generally act cordially. We did not encounter open hatred. On one visit, we went to a mall and a person in a traditional Moslem djellaba (long loose fitting outer robe) approached us and asked: Are you Jews?
We smiled and as proud Lubavitchers we said, “Certainly, we are Jews.”
Then he boasted that he had business dealings with Jews from Europe and he greatly respected them. In a conciliatory tone he ended our conversation by saying: You should know that we are cousins. Not everyone wants war. He then blessed us and went on his way.
SOULS INSPIRED AT THE PURIM PARTY
Although when we enter the country we conceal articles of clothing that identify us as religious Jews and wear a baseball cap over our yarmulke, in the city itself we wear our yarmulkes and tzitzis openly. This way, people can readily identify us as Jews. Walking around malls is the best way to meet Jews and include them in the community.
On Chanuka, a girl came over to us and excitedly asked whether we have a menorah. When we said we did, and even invited her to join the Chanuka party, she was in shock. She said she had been so sad when she thought she would go through Chanuka without lighting a menorah, and we had literally brought light to her heart.
For Purim 5773, Yisroel went to Dubai with a bachur named Motty K. Motty told us about their experiences:
I was in 770 and a few days before Purim, Yisroel came over to me and asked: Do you have a European passport? Do you know how to read the Megilla? When I answered yes to both questions, he asked me: Are you willing to come with me to Dubai to read the Megilla?
He asked me in a tone that you would use about going to mivtzaim in Manhattan, but to me this sounded more like: Do you want to come with me for Purim to the casbah in Sh’chem (Nablus)?
I wrote to the Rebbe and after opening to a clear answer, I said yes. We went to Kennedy airport where the El-Al counters are opposite the Emirates counters. That is the national airline for the United Arab Emirates which, by the way, is considered the best airline in the world today. As we turned left to the Arab company’s counters, an employee said to us: You made a mistake. You need to turn right. And she pointed at the El-Al counters.
After a long flight, nearly fifteen hours, we landed at the huge airport in Dubai. We schlepped suitcases full of food products since you cannot buy kosher food there (afterward, we found some basic kosher items in the stores, but there are no mehadrin products there). We were afraid that the customs agents would make problems for us with the food products, some of which had Israeli labels with Hebrew lettering.
But the customs people were more interested in the Megilla we brought with us. They wanted to open it and were surprised that it opened and opened and opened. “What language is this?” they asked, and like the earlier times, Yisroel said it was similar to Arabic (l’havdil) and they accepted that. “No problem,” said the official, and he let us go.
From the airport we traveled to the family who hosted us, a lawyer for a large European company. He and his wife were so eager to hear about Judaism. They wanted us to sit with them and their children every free moment we had and tell them about Torah and mitzvos. It was a great feeling to be in a home where they wanted to hear more and more.
Shabbos morning, Erev Purim, only six people came to the home of the person whose turn it was to host, so unfortunately, we had no minyan. Nevertheless, we led a davening with niggunim as we would in a regular minyan, just without Kaddish, etc. The atmosphere was electric. By the way, the home where the minyan took place on Shabbos was the home of an Israeli fellow who had been in an elite unit in the IDF, who worked as a security guard for one of the most important sheiks in Dubai. He also had a European passport and came and went without a problem.
On Motzaei Shabbos dozens of people showed up with their children. We held a special gathering for the children, some of whom had never heard of Purim. The people were moved to see the Megilla. For many of them, this was the first time they were seeing a real Megilla, made of parchment.
We brought mishloach manos for all of them so that the next day they could fulfill the mitzva. The packaging was shaped like 770 and the people, who had never seen 770, wondered about the significance of the building. They got a detailed explanation about “Beis Rabbeinu Sh’B’Bavel,” and about the Rebbe MH”M and the imminent Geula.
After reading the Megilla, they all stayed. It’s a giant apartment and there was plenty of room for all. Since we both speak English, we stood in two corners and held private discussions with members of the community to encourage them and raise their spirits. Like all of Yisroel’s visits to Dubai, this time too, he brought many mezuzos and we took the opportunity to talk to people about the importance of putting them up in a Jewish home.
There was a businesswoman who runs a chain of fashion stores in the duty-free areas of all the countries of the Persian Gulf. She invited us to put up a mezuza in her home and we explained the deeper significance of a mezuza. I also told her that sometimes I take a walk in an irreligious neighborhood and when I see a house with a mezuza, I know that the people living there are Jewish. Sometimes I stop, knock, and wish the Jewish family a “chag sameiach.”
She liked the idea so much that she asked us to bring mezuzos for all the stores she operated in the duty-free areas. She said: You invested thousands of dollars in flying here in order to bring me a mezuza. Why shouldn’t I invest a few hundred dollars so that if a Jew ends up in one of my stores, and sees the mezuza, he will know that there is a Jew here?
One of the women there was afraid to put up a mezuza on her apartment which is in a public place. She finally agreed to put it up on the inner side of the door (in accordance with the ruling of the Shach in Yore Deia siman 289).
The next day, when we called her, she said she wasn’t at home but her mother was there and she would let us put up the mezuza. We arrived at her home and met her mother, a woman in her sixties, who spoke French and English. Also there was an older French man, an artist by profession, who proudly showed us a catalog of his artwork, each piece selling for five figures.
He did not speak English so we asked the woman to translate our question for him, whether he was Jewish. He answered that he was, but it meant nothing to him. We began talking, through the woman who served as our interpreter, and learned that his parents were Holocaust survivors who died when he was five. Since then, he grew up without any Jewish education. He was so removed from anything Jewish that when he saw Lubavitchers in Paris at a t’fillin stand, he crossed to the other side of the street to avoid them.
After three hours of interpreted conversation, he finally agreed to put on t’fillin. I took out the t’fillin and being an artist he began asking why they were square and why they were black. When we began saying the bracha, he wanted every word translated. We translated every word into English and the woman translated it into French. Another half an hour passed until we finally got to put on the t’fillin, for the first time in his life.
He began saying the Shma and, without prior warning, he burst into tears. He was so taken aback by his tears that burst forth from him that he asked the woman to ask us why he cried. She had a traditional background and was so moved that she also began sobbing.
After three and a half hours of back and forth, we were so happy and moved that we took out candies and threw them, as is customary at a bar mitzva.
After he finished the Shma, he wanted to leave the t’fillin on for a while longer. He suddenly felt so good about it that he didn’t want to take them off. Then we went to put up the mezuza and he said he wanted to do this mitzva too. He put up the mezuza and cried once again. We were so uplifted that we began dancing with him, swept up in his enthusiasm. He danced and cried.
PRINTING THE TANYA IN DUBAI
On Chanuka of last year, Yisroel decided to ramp up the spreading of the wellsprings in this Moslem country and to print the Tanya in Dubai. After he got all the files from R’ Sholom Jacobson, who is on the Vaad L’Hafatzos Sichos and the person appointed by the Rebbe over printing Tanyas, he flew to Dubai. He went to the biggest printing house in the city, that is run by foreign workers from India, and said he wanted a hundred copies.
“When the printer began spewing out the first pages, I was ecstatic. This must have been the first Jewish book to be printed in Dubai. The gentile workers who saw how happy I was, also got excited and realized they were taking part in something special.
“We printed four boxes of paper which I took with me to New York and from there I sent them to Eretz Yisroel to be bound. On my next visit, I gave out the Tanyas to the members of the community who were amazed to hear that the Tanya had been printed there. One of them was so enthused that he arranged to learn Tanya via Skype with someone in Eretz Yisroel.”
DAILY BRACHA FROM THE REBBE IN DUBAI
Much more could be told about the unique work being done in Dubai but our time ran out and Yisroel was rushing to the airport on his way to the Kinus Ha’Shluchim. He ended with two short stories:
“Two years ago, at a Purim party we made for children, a French woman with her young son was very excited by our work. On our next visit, she wanted us to come and visit her home so we could tell her and her son about Judaism. At the end of the visit, she said she wanted to show us something nice. She took us to the end of the hall where we stopped and looked at a giant picture of the Rebbe wearing tallis and t’fillin. It was an oil painting on canvas. She told us that every morning she stands near the Rebbe’s picture and asks for his blessing, that Hashem help her with everything she needs.
“Another story happened on my last visit for Tishrei 5777. I visited someone in the community, the one I told you about who has been living in Dubai for thirty years. Tragically, his sister converted to Islam and married a Lebanese man. She frequently argues with him and yells at him for exposing his Jewishness. As I sat in his house, his sister called and asked – can you get me a mezuza?
“Of course he was shocked but he said yes. ‘How soon can you get one for me?’ she asked. He told her that it just so happened that a rabbi was present and he could take care of it immediately. Of course, I immediately gave him a mezuza and he got it over to her at the earliest opportunity. I have yet to hear the continuation of that story but her sudden inspiration just while I was sitting in his house, was moving.”