As I sit on a hotel patio listening to Shabbat dinner conversations happening all around me — Jews of all sorts of backgrounds connecting with one another in multiple languages, with plate after plate and dip after dip loading down the table — I am quiet.
I am overwhelmed and amazed all at the same time. There is the beauty that is humans gathering around food, conversation, and laughter that is universal. It’s then, I realize that we are public, witnessed and shared with those Jewish and not, Muslim and not — part of an experience that I couldn’t have imagined just two years ago. Two years ago when I sat not far from this hotel, in a villa surrounded by a handful of the same people. Then, like now, we were enjoying a meal, but the gates were locked, doors securely shut, many neighbors still unaware that there were Jews celebrating together every week.
Let me step back for a moment to give some context.
In 2019, I spent three months living and working in Dubai as the JDC Entwine Ralph I. Goldman Fellow. Entwine, the young adult platform of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), educates young Jews on global Jewish causes and trains rising leaders through global service, including the Ralph I. Goldman Fellowship, Entwine’s premier leadership opportunity. The Fellowship took me around the world, to Dubai, and now two years later, I had the opportunity to return. This time for just a week, on a leadership trip through a partnership between JDC Entwine and NEXTGen Detroit, alongside eight current and former NEXTGen Board Members.
In those short (let’s be honest they felt long) two years, much has changed in this part of the world. In the past, Dubai and the U.A.E. have not tended to show up in Jewish geography. Prior to the Abrahamic Accords in 2020, there had been next to no media coverage about the Jewish community there only one article had really been written about this Jewish community.
When I landed in August of 2019, the Jewish community was gathering in a private villa. Many Jews living in the UAE did not share with friends that they were Jewish; the opportunities to celebrate or participate began and ended in the villa.
At the villa, Shabbat and holiday services were the highlights. We never knew who would walk through the door, from ambassadors to businesspeople to travelers looking to pray, for kosher food, for community. This community, made up of expats from countries around the world, building lives in Dubai in a variety of businesses and with Jewish backgrounds – Ashkenazi, Mizrachi, Sephardi, Othrodox, Reform and more would come together. I witnessed those who had been in Dubai for years regularly welcoming newcomers, guests and folks of different faiths looking to learn. On Rosh Hashanah, the shofar blowing inside and the call to prayer outside somehow lined up and emulated the harmony that was beginning to develop.
Then in 2020, with the Abraham Accords and Covid protocols in place, many Jews in Dubai grew more comfortable being Jewish in public. Many Israelis began moving to and traveling to Dubai. The community moved out of the villa. Multiple minyanim and micro-communities began to take shape. Along the way, the Jewish (and non-Jewish) world beyond Dubai took notice and wanted to connect.
On this trip, in the days leading up to Shabbat dinner, our group visited with local leaders, spent time with many of the people I had worked with in 2019. We toured many of the local landmarks including the tallest building, the largest mall, the man-made Palm Islands — and dove into conversations around multiculturalism, interfaith relationships and the dynamics for Jewish expats living in Dubai. The kind of itinerary where even the downtime is action packed. Until Shabbat.
I am a firm believer that we all make an impact in life. Each person you meet, each little thing we do has an effect on how the world spins. It’s just we don’t realize or can’t really know the impact we make. Rare are the exceptions, the times we actually get to see what we did. The moment we get a sense of whether we made a difference, or if a seed we planted actually grows into something.
Going back to Dubai after two years is incredible. As I sit watching my peers experience Dubai for the first time, and listen to the conversations happening around me, I am simultaneously seeing communal evolution. Brainstorming and deep thinking in a quiet villa over Shabbat lunch two years ago evolved into multiple Shabbat services happening at the same time. Debates, conversation, and discussion of dreams and visions for what community should look like — turned into business ventures, community connection, opportunity and at the core, really powerful relationships that have exponential growth potential.
Let me be clear, it is very much not because of me that these things happened. Many people, moments, decisions, partnerships, ranging in size from short text messages to government action, brought this change.
But at this moment, at this Shabbat dinner, I can’t help but realize I am part of making history.
I couldn’t articulate it at the time, and I’m not sure I did a great job here. But it’s rare and inspiring to be in a moment where you see the impact of your work — where you get to share it with those who took it on and helped it grow and flourish. It’s rare to be in the same place with multiple JDC Entwine Fellows who have continued the work in support of this remarkable community, each one making it their own, and to feel connected despite working in the community at different times.
It’s rare to be on a group trip and share in everyone’s “wow” moments — each person bringing intelligence and insightful reactions to evolving experiences — and to do it with your friends from home, leaders in your own community.
It’s rare that you get to connect back with people after two years gone, but feel as if you’ve never left, even when there has been a global pandemic in the meantime. Look, it’s rare when your first international trip out of the country after a global pandemic is to Dubai, and it’s the precise change of scenery you didn’t know you needed.
I’m beyond grateful for the opportunities I’ve had. If nothing else, they are reminders to plant lots of seeds, to listen deeply and to take a step back sometimes. It turns out that being fully present can tune you into the history happening all around us.
We don’t always know what is to come, but we do know there is always Shabbat to look forward to.
Jessica Katz was the 2019 JDC Entwine Ralph I. Goldman Fellow. She has held multiple leadership positions on the NEXTGen Board. Jess currently works for Kids Kicking Cancer, a global non-profit headquartered in Detroit. For more about her year traveling, check out:
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