In this episode of the “Our Middle East” podcast, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs President Dan Diker welcomes Rabbi Ben de Toledo, Rabbi-in-Residence at the Abrahamic Family Houses’ Moses ben Maimon Synagogue, in Abu Dhabi. Rabbi de 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 de Toledo’s synagogue hosts Abu Dhabi’s fast-growing, active Jewish community that now numbers about 300, which also hosts hundreds of visitors every week, some of whom have never been to a synagogue or met Jews.
Life-cycle events and visiting delegations, politicians, diplomats and groups the world over are daily fare in Rabbi de Toledo’s synagogue.
“It happens almost on a daily basis. We have these Jews coming from all over the world who come into the synagogue and they’re overwhelmed by this embrace. And even if they’re not normally accustomed to wearing the Kippah, putting you on a Talit, a prayer shawl, wrapping Tefillin, they want to do these things. They want to say Tehillim with me. They want to join us for the services. It’s a very powerful experience.”
Rabbi de 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.”