When Ross Kriel, President of the Jewish Council of the Emirates, invited Rabbi Yehuda Sarna to give a shiur (class) during Chanukah in 2016, Sarna immediately knew what he would teach.  Sarna would address the question of Jews are to place the Chanukah menorah.   At the time, Sarna shared that the preference is to light it outside, though we are permitted to light inside out of fear.  Now, Sarna tells several hundred on today’s UJA Federation New York-sponsored “Celebrate Hanukkah with the UJA” Zoom meeting, “Chanukah menorahs are all over town.  It is quite a dramatic transformation.”   Kriel adds, “You can also hear Hebrew spoken, see kipot and tzitzit (ritual fringes) out, and kosher restaurants.  “We have taken leaps, not steps since the signing of the Abraham Accords.  It has intensified all over the city!”

Rabbi Elie Abadie, former rabbi of Manhattan’s Safra Synagogue, recently relocated to the region to become the Senior Rabbi in Residence of the Jewish Council of the Emirates.  “Every night, I have lit the menorah in a different place,” recounts Abadie, as he lit the menorah over Zoom for the several hundred participants who were eager to learn about the Jewish community of the UAE and what appears to be a “warm peace” ahead as the result of the recently signed Abraham Accords.  “In the UAE, you can feel the enthusiasm of the people!”  The panelists proudly reported that there is now a Chanukah menorah standing outside the Burj Khalifa, Dubai’s tallest building, which is which 2,717 feet tall and contains 209 floors  

Abadie will be a true asset to the community.  He was born in Beirut, Lebanon, grew up in Mexico City, and is fluent in seven languages including Arabic. His language skills will likely come in handy in the UAE. 

Jeff Schoenfeld, immediate past president of the UJA-Federation and a frequent business traveler to the Middle East shared in his opening remarks that the UAE consists of “one million locals and is dominated by 9 million expats who live and contribute to the vitality of the UAE.   Abadie is also a physician and a scholar of Sephardic Jewry.  Several years ago, Abadie was invited to see what he describes as the “nascent community.”  He was pleased to be the sofer who completed a sefer torah in UAE which was presented as a gift to the leaders of the UAE.  “I believe that, given the Abraham Accords, we are at a historic moment, we are at the crossroad of history.”  He appreciates the tremendous responsibility he will have and adds, “I felt religiously compelled to take the opportunity, to step up to the plate and build up the beautiful community.”

They are off to a good start.  When Kriel, a lawyer, arrived from South Africa 10 years ago with his wife (who at the time was the only kosher caterer in the UAE) and family, the Jewish community was small, with members of all backgrounds worshipping in a small villa.  “We were inclusive and created a beautiful ethos of comradery and love of Israel.”  He hopes to carry these core values forward as the community expands. “We are 300 Jews, and we expect to increase to 3000 families in ten years.”  He expects this will require a lot of “ramping up.” 

Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, the Chief Rabbi of the UAE, who commutes between Manhattan and the UAE, is also the Executive Director of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University and the NYU university chaplain.  He first came to the UAE in 2010 as part of an NYU team sent to interview high school students from around the world who were seeking admission at NYU’s Dubai campus.  “This visit was transformative,” reports Sarna.  “I had to confront stereotypes of Arabs in the region.” 

During his once or twice a year visits, Sarna began addressing the needs of Jews in the UAE.  “There were Jewish administrators, professors, students and some Israelis.  Some were just discovering that they were Jewish.  We had an ad hoc Jewish culture club, we put up a sukkah, and had Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.”  

Sarna continues to be an even more integral part of Jewish life and an important representative of the Jewish community.  He described how visitors are “moved to tears” when they witness the Prayer for the State of Israel, followed by the Prayer for the Welfare of the UAE and its Army.  “Most Jews could have never imagined a prayer for an Arab army!”  Sarna feels the Abrahamic Accords are very different from past accords as they represent a warm peace.  “A warm peace is a peace between people.”

Hamdan al Kindi Al Mara, the founder of the UAE-Israel Business Council, is a fluent English and Hebrew speaker.  “When I started learning Hebrew for myself, I expected it would be dead for me because I couldn’t practice.”  Now, he describes the level of excitement in both Israel and the UAE and notes that trade has already started.”  He adds, “Bloomberg predicts there will be $6 billion in trade between the two counties.”  He has already observed Jews coming to the UAE from Israel and such countries as France.  People are purchasing real estate, there are kosher restaurants and Jewish ceremonies at hotels and he notes, “I saw 50 people with kipot in a mall just today!” 

Hamdad envisions the UAE importing technology including cybersecurity, high tech and agritech from Israel.  He notes that “the first ships from Dubai have already arrived in Haifa!”  He predicts, “We will see billions in trade in both directions.   This is just the beginning.  Let’ all hope for the best and an expanded people with the people of the world.” 

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I have fond memories of attending Baltimore Orioles, Colts, Bullets and Clippers games during my childhood.  We even had season tickets for a few years for the Baltimore Blast indoor soccer team.  Of these five professional sports teams, the Baltimore Orioles are the only one still around. I still keep up with the Orioles a bit and on occasion, wear an Oriole’s hat—even on the streets of New York.  It makes it easier since they haven’t been real American league East competitors for years.

I followed the Colts and even attended a Colts vs Oakland Raiders playoff game when I was a kid.  I remember wearing my Johnny Unitas then Bert Jones football jerseys on game days for years.  When I was in St. Louis for college, the team was “kidnapped” in the middle of the night to Indianapolis.  I couldn’t bring myself to become an Indianapolis Colts fan.  Good thing I never took to the Cardinals—they suffered a similar fate—relocating to Arizona.

The Baltimore Clippers and the Baltimore Bullets are similarly no more.  The Clippers of the AHL—The American Hockey League—played at the Baltimore Civic Center from 1962 to 1976. I attended a few of their hockey games as well. When they left, I sort of followed the Washington Capitals. The Caps played their home games at the Capital Centre, in Landover, Maryland from 1974 to 1997.  By the time they moved to the Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C, I was long gone.

The Bullets bring back good memories—I attended a few games with my late grandfather, Arthur.  Then, the Bullets too “relocated.”  In 1973, they moved to Landover, Maryland, played a season as the “Capital Bullets,” and in 1974 became the Washington Bullets.  I stopped actively following the team, but not the  fascinating and emotional story of their name change, which took place in 1995, the year Jewish owner Abe Pollin decided to change the name to the Washington Wizards.  I thought of this story about 7 years ago, when crossing the border in Eilat, Israel in to Jordan, and again a few days ago when Deni Avdija, an Israeli 19-year-old, was drafted #9 by the…Washington Wizards.

Pollin and the late Israeli Prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin were dear friends. As Pollin recounts in this fascinating New York Times story, he received a call in 1968 from the Israeli Embassy in Washington. “They heard I had a tennis court.  They asked if I would like to play with the new ambassador, Yitzhak Rabin. Oh, boy. We became friends. His wife. My wife. Our children. Last summer I took my whole family to Israel to see him.”  This explains the photo I saw of Rabin on the wall at the Wadi Araba Crossing or Yitzhak Rabin Crossing, the border crossing between Aqaba, Jordan and Eilat, Israel.  There is an amazing photos of Rabin—in his tennis clothes!

When the Israeli Prime Minster was assassinated in November, 1995, his dear friend, Abe Pollin-who had been toying with changing the name of his basketball team from Bullets for months—decided to move up the date of the announcement of a name change.  He made the decision while flying back from Rabin’s funeral.  His dear friend had just been killed by bullets.  “Bullets connote killing, violence, death,” Pollin said. “Our slogan used to be, ‘Faster than a speeding bullet.’ That is no longer appropriate.”

Since then, the Washington Bullets have been the Washington Wizards.  I suspect that Yitzhak Rabin z’l would be smiling to learn that now, a young Israeli who promises to be a great role model and emissary of Israel, will play for the team that the late Mr. Pollin, who died in 2009 at age 86, owned for 46 years! Pollin was the owner of a number of professional sports teams including the Washington Capitals, the Washington Mystics (WNBA), and the Wizards.

We welcome Deni Avdija to Washington. I was lucky enough to cover the NBA draft for the Jewish News Syndicate.   Seeing Avdija smiling and wearing his Washington Wizards hat, got me very excited. I think I am returning to my roots, sort of!

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There are two things you don’t hear much about during the Covid pandemic—new businesses opening and new job opportunities for people with disabilities.  (Bakers) hats off to Shiri Reuveni-Ullrich, the founder and president and the amazing team of Rising Above Bakery in Chestnut Ridge, New York! The 501(c)(3) non-profit organization will train and employ people with disabilities.  

Reuveni-Ulrich, a speech therapist who worked with students in the kitchen for years, developed a cookie line which provided work opportunities for people with disabilities.   “After establishing our baking routines, I noticed how much the students open up in the kitchen. Nonverbal students started sounding their voices, laughing, singing, expressing their true self. From there the road was paved to combine all my passions into one focal point- thus the bakery,” reports Reuveni-Ulrich.

Reuveni-Ullrich notes that “over 80% of adults with intellectual disabilities do not have paid employment in their communities” and adds, “At Rising Above Bakery, we believe that everyone should have a fighting chance to learn a skill that leads to personal empowerment and even to steady employment opportunities.”  

Plans for a brick-and-mortar bakery that would employ individuals with different abilities as equal members of the team as well as teach baking skills are still in the works. At this, they are creating a cottage bakery that will offer workshops and classes, centered on “teaching within a loving community atmosphere available for New York and New Jersey residents.” The goal is to prepare new bakers for independency in the kitchen. 

They have launched a Kickstart Challenge and hope to raise $20,000 to get the bakery up and running.

Check out this short video to learn more.

It is always refreshing to see more training and employment opportunities for people with disabilities.  It is especially praiseworthy that Rising Above Bakery is opening during these difficult times.  Please check out my growing list of creative job sites for people with disabilities. I have visited 30 or so and have another 150 on my list still to visit! 

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Best Webinars During Pandemic Are Short, Focused and Have Rich Content.  Thank You, Dr. Stephen Shore!

Raise your hand if you are on your 100th educational webinar this pandemic!.   We are all getting smarter by the minute, thanks to an abundance of webinars, offered by so many wonderful organizations and individuals.   I have written about some in this blog.  I have learned from Temple Grandin, Next for Autism, Access Israel, RespectAbility and more.  Some last exact an hour (ideal), and some last up to five hours (with no built in bathroom break—arrgggg!),

Thank you, Shelly Christensen of Inclusion Innovations and Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer of Jewish Learning Venture for offering an awesome 29 minute, 53 second session with Dr. Stephen Shore on The 4 A’s of Autism—all part of the series, “Everyone’s Welcome: A Fresh Conversation About Disability.”  View it here

For more info on upcoming webinars, click here.

Dr. Shore is always engaging, informative and clear.  He is a professor of special education at Adelphi University and he is autistic himself.  He shared his story, then shared the 4 A’s—Awareness, Acceptance, Appreciation and Action, and answered questions about employment, changing mindset about people with autism, and about the term autistic.   Enjoy!

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