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UAE’s First Synagogue In 100 Years Reflects Growing Religious Tolerance

Rabbi-led synagogue in Abu Dhabi welcomes visitors of all faiths, promoting interfaith understanding

In this episode of the “Our Middle East” podcast, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs President Dan Diker welcomes Rabbi Ben de Toledo, the United Arab Emirates’ official rabbi of Abu Dhabi. Rabbi Toledo leads the Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) synagogue, the first “purpose-built” Jewish house of worship in the Arab Gulf region in the past 100 years.

The synagogue is sponsored and funded by the Emirati government’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, under the mandate and blessing of its leader, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, who has set an ideal of religious tolerance in the UAE, whose residents include 200 nationalities and ethnicities. In 2019, the UAE’s “year of tolerance” was devoted to embracing and displaying shared monotheistic, Abrahamic values. The synagogue is part of a complex of the “Abrahamic Family House” that also includes a mosque and a church. The UAE puts faith-based diplomacy into practice with the houses of worship doing everything from hosting common events in a shared garden to publishing papers that encourage understanding and tolerance.

Rabbi Toledo’s synagogue hosts Abu Dhabi’s fast-growing, active Jewish community that now numbers about 300, which also hosts about 7,000 non-Jewish visitors every year, some of whom have never been to a synagogue or met Jews.

(L-R) Myrna Ayad, Benedetta Ghione, Vilma Jurkute and Afra Al Dhaheri during the talk Diversity in the Cultural Landscape at Prada Mode Dubai Day 1 on November 09, 2022 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. PHOTO BY VITTORIO ZUNINO/GETTY IMAGES

Life-cycle events and visiting delegations, politicians, diplomats and groups the world over are daily fare in Rabbi Toledo’s synagogue. “So many of the people who are coming through are not necessarily frequent synagogue-goers, but something about the confluence of being in an Arab country and seeing the way in which they respect the Jewish faith, honor the Jewish space by building this gorgeous synagogue in this beautiful, multifaith center that embraces and welcomes the traditionalism of each of the religions, doesn’t bother them.”

Rabbi Toledo emphasizes, though, that positive interfaith developments should not be overly politicized and that they will not solve complicated geopolitical problems. “I think whatever happens on the diplomatic level,” he said, “the phase that is really so critical to all peoples is that one on one interaction—it’s getting to know each other, it’s sharing each other’s culture.”

Produced in association with Jewish News Syndicate

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