Emirates rabbi sees interfaith shrine opening by year’s end
UAE Torah gift sparkles in Tel Aviv premiere of documentary
Religion Media Co.
A monumental prayer compound for Muslims, Jews and Christians — the Abrahamic Family House — is expected to open in the United Arab Emirates by the end of this year, capping a national project to inject some tolerance into the strife-filled Middle East, the Gulf state’s top rabbi said on Tuesday in Tel Aviv.
Extending the Abraham Accords to normalize ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, may take at least a generation because of the region’s entrenched hostilities, according to Yehuda Sarna, chief rabbi of the Emirates Jewish Council. “It’s not going to turn on a dime,’’ he said.
Sarna was the headliner at Tuesday night’s Israel premiere of the documentary film, “Amen-Amen-Amen,” which follows the winding path to the UAE of a gold-encased and bejeweled Torah scroll, by way of Israel and Brooklyn, N.Y. The glittering work of Judaica was presented by the rabbi and his community members in November 2019 to Emirati Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the country’s de facto ruler, at his palace in the capital city of Abu Dhabi.
Directed by filmmaker Tom Gallagher and aired already on PBS stations in the U.S, the documentary recounts how Jews in the UAE prayed in a single secret synagogue until the government’s official tolerance directives in 2019 enabled them to come out into the open. Since the September 2020 Accords, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have packed daily flights to the oil-rich, desert nation as at least four fledgling synagogues hold weekly Sabbath services and kosher restaurants proliferate.
Several of Israel’s biggest banks, hospitals and venture capital firms have established or explored joint ventures with counterparts in the Gulf. Mubadala, the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund, allocated $1 billion of its $243 billion in assets to buy a 22 percent stake in Israel’s offshore Tamar gas field. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made an official visit to see the crown prince in December.
Emblematic of the Gulf monarchy’s efforts to foster religious harmony is the Abrahamic Family House, which is under construction in Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island cultural enclave, neighboring the Louvre’s intricate geometric-domed UAE branch. The unique prayer compound, designed by knighted British architect David Adjaye and scheduled for completion in 2022, houses a mosque, a synagogue and a church, each of similar proportions with iconic facades reflecting the individual faiths.
“It will be one of the most magnificent synagogues on the planet,’’ said Sarna, a Canadian-born rabbi who is Jewish chaplain for New York University and its satellite campus in Abu Dhabi. Joining him at a panel discussion after the screening at a converted nightclub on the Tel Aviv beach were Deputy Jerusalem Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, who is co-founder of the Gulf-Israel Women’s Network; Gallagher, whose Religion Media Co. made the film; and Jean Candiotte, a video producer and a leader in the Dubai Jewish community. Deputy Tel Aviv Mayor Zippi Brand, herself a documentary filmmaker, introduced the film.
“The opportunity for hundreds of thousands of people from the region to come through and see the first purpose-built synagogue on the Arabian Peninsula at a moment when many on that peninsula believe that one is not allowed to construct anything except for mosques on that peninsula is a very powerful symbol,’’ Sarna said.