For ten years, Jews in the emirate of Dubai have gathered in a building known as “the villa,” where they have a small synagogue—oriented so that the congregants face northwest, in the direction of Jerusalem, when they pray. But until this week the community’s existence was a closely guarded secret, and its leaders agreed to speak with the press only on the condition that the villa’s location be kept secret. Miriam Herschlag writes:
The villa [is] a converted residence the community rents, with a sanctuary, full kitchen, areas for adults to socialize and for children to play, an outdoor pool, and several rooms upstairs where religiously observant visitors can stay for Shabbat.
Since its formation in 2008, the community has been vigilant in maintaining a low profile. No dedicated website. No listing on Jewish travel sites. Almost no mentions on social media. Visitors learn about it via word of mouth, and the villa’s address is supplied only after a careful vetting.
The cover of the synagogue’s Torah scroll states that it has been “dedicated in honor of His Excellency Mohamed Ali Alabbar”:
Mohamed Alabbar is the chairman of Emaar Properties, one of the world’s largest real estate-development companies. . . . Alabbar and his business are intimately entwined with the UAE government. He also has a close friendship with an Orthodox Jew from New York. [Alabbar’s] patronage affords the community a modicum of security. At the same time, Jewish residents exercise prudence in the Islamic city-state, which has long considered Israel an enemy, and where just a few years ago Saudi-trained imams preached anti-Israel diatribes until the government expelled them.