Every Chanukah, we remind ourselves of the “great miracle that happened there” — referring to Israel. This past Chanukah, I certainly celebrated a “great miracle there,” but I was in the United Arab Emirates, not Israel.
I was invited back to Abu Dhabi at the invitation of the Royal Family and Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah to attend the Fifth Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies during the first week of December, which was also during Chanukah. Bin Bayyah was recently appointed as head of the UAE’s supreme Fatwa Council.
As my colleague, Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee points out, “Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah is arguably the most authoritative and impressive opponent against violent Islamist ideology in the world today. He is responsible for issuing the strongest condemnations of violence in the name of religion and demolishing false arguments in the name of Islam.”
How did we get here? A little background: The sheikh established the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies and convened the historic Marrakesh summit almost three years ago, which issued the worldwide declaration affirming full equality and civil rights for non-Muslims in Muslim societies. This was widely promoted in the world except America. It was 2016 and we were in the middle of a presidential election and there was no time in the media, in my observation, for hearing the voices of moderate Muslims.
In May 2017, the sheikh invited me, a pastor and an imam from Phoenix to Abu Dhabi to launch the “American Caravan for Peace” — an initiative by the Forum for Promoting Peace to empower 10 cities in America to model multifaith dialogue between Muslims, Jews and Christians (starting with an imam, rabbi and pastor). This is not only happening here in the Valley, but also in Miami, Nashville, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Detroit, Indianapolis and Washington, D.C., to name a handful of examples.
In the fall of 2017, we reconvened in Rabat, Morocco with representatives from the original 10 cities and an additional 10 cities. Less than a year ago, we reconvened in Washington, D.C., for what the sheikh termed an “Alliance of Values.” By convening his forum in the United States, he greatly expanded his message to a much broader audience.
Which brings us up to date to the most recent peace forum, held earlier this month in the UAE. The forum focused primarily on worldwide Muslim leaders and Muslim thinkers gathering to hear, teach, learn and study the moderate voices of Islam. Forum plenary sessions titles included: “Alliance of Virtues in Islam: Contemporary Perspective,” “Religious Pluralism and Civil Peace” and “Poverty and Social Inequality: The Ethics of Charity and Benevolence.”
What was remarkable was the additional invitations to Christian and Jewish leaders, clergy and scholars to attend, participate and share in this forum. There was impressive Christian leadership represented. And there were 17 Rabbis (representing Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Chabad) from all over the world, including Israel, the U.S., Europe and Australia. Some were even given prominent roles in the forum, including my teacher and professor at Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Reuven Firestone.
Keeping with the theme of a great miracle happening there, the Muslim conference organizers went to extraordinary lengths to provide and publicly display kosher food for the Jewish participants. Not only did many of the Muslims find this natural, many asked whether they too could partake of the kosher options at meal time.
For me, the greatest miracle happened on the second evening of the conference. Bin Bayyah initiated a private meeting with the Jewish delegation. As we waited for him in a private room, the realization that it had been a hundred years, at minimum, since a minyan of rabbis had been in these parts of the world together at the same time settled in. Our Jewish expression was taken to a surreal level when we asked the sheikh if he would join us in lighting the Chanukah candles. The power of the moment, the public display of Jews doing Jewish in the United Arab Emirates today, the symbolism of 17 rabbis singing Ma’oz Tzur at the top of our lungs was enough to put goose bumps on any Jewish person.
The Jewish participation and contribution to this Muslim Forum for Promoting Peace is nothing less than a modern-day miracle. The organizers did not hide the fact that this Jewish visibility was entirely with the authorization and support of the UAE political leadership. Further examples of this great miracle were the lengths our hosts went to in taking special care of the needs of the rabbis who stayed until the end of the conference on Friday, and thus had to stay on over Shabbat in the UAE. (I had left the conference early in order to be home in time for Shabbat to perform my duties at Temple Kol Ami.) The only place in the region where a minyan of Jews gathers for Shabbat services, as just publicly reported in the Bloomberg News and the Times of Israel, is Dubai. So the Muslim conference organizers went to the substantial expense of relocating the rabbis for Shabbat, booking them into a luxury hotel near the meeting house
of the fledgling Dubai Jewish community made up of expatriates from around
The Abu Dhabi conference was a modern-day miracle for me. At the bare minimum, it was a significant indicator of an increasingly positive view on engagement with Jewry on the part of religious and political authorities in the Muslim world. Although my visit was brief, the impact of celebrating the miracle of Chanukah in the United Arab Emirates was a miracle in and of itself. And it is a miracle I’ll be reminded of every year — during Chanukah. JN
Rabbi Jeremy Schneider is the spiritual leader of Temple Kol Ami in Scottsdale.