NYU Chaplain to Be First Chief Rabbi in the United Arab Emirates

Rabbi Yehuda Sarna's hope is to nurture a structured community in the Muslim country, so that paid staff, including a full-time rabbi, could one day take over

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Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, a chaplain at NYU.
Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, a chaplain at NYU.Credit: Gili Getz
Ron Kampeas

Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, the New York University chaplain, will be the first chief rabbi of the Jewish Community of the United Arab Emirates.

David Weinberg, the international affairs director for the Anti-Defamation League, made the announcement Tuesday at an event co-hosted by the ADL and the UAE embassy on interfaith tolerance.

“What we see is the first emergence of the first new Jewish community emerging in the Arab world for centuries,” said Sarna, who says there are hundreds of Jews in the UAE from all over the world to take advantage of employment opportunities.

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In an extensive interview with Haaretz, he described how he found himself working in the Gulf: “When it was suggested in 2010 that I start visiting NYU in Abu Dhabi, where we also have some Jewish students, I said I’ll go only if it’s safe enough for me to go dressed the way I dress. They said come, and I walk around there with a kippa and tzitztit. I’ve gone every year for the past eight years twice a year exactly as I am now."

He recounts that "The first time I went was the weekend that the Mossad killed a Hamas official in Dubai. I woke up in the morning and I saw the newspaper. I was surprised, I was afraid, but I didn’t realize how safe the country was.”

He also discussed the unique issues his position faced in the staunchly Muslim Emirates. “I helped develop the strategy around religious expression at the university because obviously it’s a Western liberal university, but it’s also located in an Arab country that’s paying for that.

Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, the chaplain of NYU, April 3, 2019.Credit: Gili Getz

"So what happens with a student who’s gay, and a number of them are gay – can they establish an LGBT club? Can they organize events within the school where their classmates are people from the Emirates? Or for Rosh Hashanah, could we organize a dinner for that? Could we advertise? Could we put a Magen David on the flyer?”

Sarna told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the position is unpaid, and that he will travel four times a year to Dubai, where the UAE recently installed a synagogue, to lead services during holidays and life-cycle ceremonies. He said he will stay on as chaplain at NYU and as the executive director of the university’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life.

He said his hope is to nurture a structured community so that paid staff, including a full-time rabbi, could one day take over.

Much of the session Wednesday was dedicated to extolling the UAE for advancing religious tolerance in the region. In addition to the synagogue, which opened late last year, a Hindu temple was inaugurated recently and there is an active Christian presence. Pope Francis visited Dubai in February, the first visit by a pope to the Arabian peninsula.

The panelists, who also included Christian clergy who have visited or served in the UAE, were sensitive to questions from reporters and others about the UAE’s poor record on human rights, which includes repression of expression and the imprisonment of political opponents. Additionally, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are deeply entrenched in a war in Yemen that is backed by the Trump administration but has been lambasted by lawmakers from both parties for its civilian toll.

Sarna and Weinberg said it was important to point out abuses in that war and in the UAE, but also to seize an opportunity to advance religious tolerance in the Arab world.

“One of the powers of moral complexity is its ability to paralyze people from doing anything,” Sarna said. “I would never say don’t ask any questions, but do not fall prey to the paralysis of complexity.”

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