I’ll never forget the first time I saw a picture of the world’s tallest hotel in the Guinness Book of World Records. It was called the Burj Al Arab, the only “seven-star” hotel in existence. Built on an artificial island, it looks like the sail of a ship jutting out of the clear blue sea, with a futuristic helipad on top. Being the little dreamer that I was at the age of eight (and still am), a small voice in my head whispered, “I’m going to stay there one day.” I must have even mentioned something about it to my parents, because I vividly remember being told that it wasn’t going to happen. “Shloime,” my father said patiently, “it’s in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.” I’d never heard of either place, but it was explained to me that the Arabian Gulf was no place for a nice Jewish boy. Back then, it was inconceivable that there would ever be a community of Jews in Dubai, and certainly not religious ones.
Fast-forward almost 20 years, and I have partially fulfilled my fantasy. While I have yet to stay at the hotel (it costs $1,800 a night), I’ve been to Dubai a number of times. On my first trip, I was fortunate enough to meet with Dubai business magnate and billionaire Khalaf Al Habtoor, whose engineering company happened to be involved in the construction of the Burj Al Arab. My meeting with him was featured on these pages. I also met with other important people there, but those stories are for another time.
What my eight-year-old self (and parents) didn’t know was that right around the time we were having that conversation, a Jewish man named Solly Wolf had just arrived in the Emirate of Dubai for the very first time. In 2002, there was no Jewish community in the UAE, and even after a fledgling community was established a few years later, its existence was a secret. Those who needed to know knew, while for most others it was merely the subject of speculation. However, over the past few years, and particularly over the past few months, the news that there is an active Jewish community in Dubai has been trickling out. The information is vague, with many details omitted; after all, it is the Middle East. But even that has begun to change of late, all of which led to my recent conversation with Solly Wolf, the president of the United Arab Emirates’ Jewish community.
I had been in touch with several members of this quiet community for a few years and wanted to write about it in Ami, but I was repeatedly told that the time was not yet ripe. So what changed? Last year, the president of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, declared 2019 to be “The Year of Tolerance,” the four pillars of which were peace, humanity, coexistence and respect. At the same time, the government began to encourage the country’s minority communities to open up and show their faces to the world.
I had heard a lot about Mr. Wolf, who was said to have connections in high places but preferred to remain out of the spotlight. But with the encouragement of the authorities, he agreed to the exclusive interview you are about to read. It would have been great if we could have met in person, but due to the current circumstances it was obviously impossible, so we settled for a Zoom meeting instead.
As he gives me a virtual tour of his house in Dubai, it’s hard to miss the dozens of framed photographs of him with some of the most powerful people in the Arab world, including the late King Hussein of Jordan; Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai; royals of the other emirates; government ministers and police chiefs. They all have two things in common: a position of power on the regional stage, and their close friendship with Solly Wolf. He comes across as a warm, zeidy-like person. Curly hair, clean-shaven and wearing rimless glasses, he is just two weeks shy of his 71st birthday. His English is a mix of accents, like a bit of Europe and the Emirates combined. His fluent Yiddish has a real Old-World flavor. Although our conversation is taking place over Zoom, unlike most virtual meetings, I find that I don’t want it to end. There’s something magnetic about his personality. It’s no wonder that this man has been befriended by the country’s high society.
“I’ve been home for the past three months,” he says as we begin our conversation lamenting the coronavirus. “I haven’t been out at all.”
“That must be difficult,” I offer.
“It is. But the truth is that it’s so hot in Dubai right now, I wouldn’t even want to be outside.”
Solly tells me that he grew up in England and studied at the Jewish college in Brighton. “We had a traditional home. My zeidy was a Sadigura chasid with a long beard. My father was also traditional. He davened and put on tefillin every day, and even donated a few sifrei Torah to shuls, but he wasn’t a chasid. In my college there were approximately 150 students from all over the world. In those years it was still before the Iranian Revolution, and a lot of Iranian Jews were sending their children outside the country to get a good Jewish education. There were also students from Turkey and South America. After I graduated, I started a jewelry business in London. It was located in Piccadilly Circus, which is London’s equivalent of Times Square. I had a shop there for 15 years. We sold watches, diamonds and all kinds of jewelry, but it wasn’t very high-end. If you wanted something fancier, it was only by special order.”
“I married a Jewish girl from Germany and we had a few children. Unfortunately, we suffered a tragedy and lost a daughter when she was less than three years old. She had been born with a heart defect and underwent a very complicated open-heart surgery at the age of two. In those days, operations of that kind were far less common than they are today. I was very down. My business was going well and I even owned a big estate out in the British countryside, but I just couldn’t live there anymore. Everywhere I turned was filled with memories of my daughter. My wife was completely broken. Her parents kept telling her to come back to Germany to be closer to them, so we eventually agreed.”
“What was her family doing in Germany after the war?” I wonder out loud.
He explains that his wife’s father was from Poland and her mother was from Germany, but they had fled to Russia during the war. After returning in 1945 or ’46 they ended up in a DP camp with plans to emigrate to America, but when that didn’t pan out they decided to stay.
“We moved to Munich and my in-laws lived in Rosenheim, which is 60 kilometers away, near the border with Austria. They had a little general store that sold food, clothing, textiles and jewelry. This was before shopping malls were popular, and they did quite well. There were only a few Jewish people in the town, so when the locals referred to the shop they would say, ‘Ich will kaufen bei dem Jude—I’m going to shop by the Jew.’ They’d greet my father-in-law in the street, ‘A guten tag, Herr Jude.’ It wasn’t pleasant, but they lived there for decades. I kept my jewelry business in London open, but after about a year and a half I decided to sell it, because you really can’t run a jewelry business remotely. It was sad because you don’t just give up a shop in Piccadilly Circus, but I had no choice.
“In the meantime, my in-laws had a friend who proposed that I open a textile shop with her in Munich. I wasn’t very interested, but I thought it might be a good venture for my wife. This woman already had an established textile shop elsewhere, so I went there one day to check it out. She was running a very profitable business. She was only open one day a week, on Friday, and when she opened the doors in the morning there were hundreds of people waiting to come in. I realized it was a great opportunity, and we opened a shop together in Munich. But six months later we had a disagreement; she wanted to sell shmattes and I wanted to sell quality items. So I went out on my own, and within a short time I had one of the most successful businesses in Bavaria. All of the celebrities would buy fabrics from me. Then in the early ’90s I began to notice that many of my customers were extremely wealthy Arab women. Every year they’d arrive in July and August and buy like crazy. The whole street would be blocked by their black limousines, chauffeurs and bodyguards. I didn’t know exactly who they were, but they had big money and they were spending it.”
“After a couple of summers of shopping, these wealthy customers realized that they could get the VAT tax back on their purchases if they filled out a VAT form. It was only then that I realized who they were: members of the royal families of the Arabian Gulf. They were mainly from the UAE, but we also did business with people from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman. Those months were the best times for my business. Seventy percent of my yearly turnover took place during the summer.”
“Did the royals know that you were Jewish?” I ask.
“In the beginning they didn’t, but as time went on they picked up on it. But it didn’t stop them from coming to my shop. In fact, they would often invite me to visit the United Arab Emirates. ‘What for?’ I asked. ‘You should open a shop in our country,’ they said. But I wasn’t interested. I had a good shop in Germany. Why would I relocate? Eventually I went there for a visit in 2001. I checked out the market and saw that the prices were three times higher than what I was selling the merchandise for in Germany. No wonder all the royals were coming to me to do their shopping! I realized that if I could sell the same things I was selling for 50 euros in Germany for 150 euros in the UAE, it would be worth moving there.”
“Why are the prices so high in Dubai?” I inquire.
“Everything is more expensive here. It’s a very wealthy country. In brand-name shops like Gucci, Chanel and Dior, the prices are higher than in Europe. Two decades ago, most Emiratis didn’t travel as much as they do now, so the shop owners in Dubai could ask any price they wished, knowing that people would buy their merchandise anyway.”
Dealing in Dubai
“In 2002, I came to Dubai for a trial run. I stayed for a month and then went back to Germany for two months, and then repeated the cycle. Eventually I got tired of all the traveling, so I moved the whole operation to Dubai, and I’ve never looked back. My late wife decided not to join me here, but she visited very often.
“As soon as I officially moved here, I started getting phone calls from people I didn’t know. I had never advertised; people just knew about me by word of mouth because the royals recommended me to one another. I’d get a call and the person would say, ‘Can you come to Abu Dhabi?’ But when I asked for an address, there would be silence. Twenty years ago there weren’t even any street names or house addresses, so they’d tell me to meet them in the town square or some other landmark, and someone would be waiting for me. I would be told to follow a car, and before long we’d pull up in front of a palace. The gates would swing open and security would let me in. So while I already had a customer base from Munich, by moving to the UAE I acquired a lot more important acquaintances.
“I’ll give you a classic example of how it worked. A sheikhah would invite me to her palace so she could buy fabric and have a dress sewn up. Her husband, the sheikh, would like how it looked and ask her where she got it. ‘From Mr. Wolf,’ she would reply. The next time I came to the palace I’d be introduced to the man of the house, and business would take off from there. That’s how I got to know important members of the royal family. I have a nice relationship with the president of the UAE and his brother Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi. I also became close with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai. I have also a close relationship with Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, the Minister of Tolerance. In 2010, I opened a shop for dressmaking and tailoring,” he tells me with pride, “but unfortunately, business isn’t what it used to be. There’s a lot of competition these days. A lot of the Italian manufacturers have opened shop in Dubai, and they’re not just selling to the wholesalers, they’re selling to the end users as well. They got smart. They realized that if I could do it, they could do it better. But that’s life,” he says with a shrug.
“Is Dubai a good place to do business?” I ask.
“Of course! It’s a very innovative place. Anybody who has any kind of innovation can bring it here. By the way, that’s why Israel is very attractive to Emiratis, because new things are being invented in Israel every day. Just yesterday I saw a new Israeli invention that enables people to open door handles without actually touching them, which was developed because of the coronavirus. Emiratis are into all kinds of technology, security and cyber innovation. I’m sure there’s a lot of potential for collaboration.”
“What was Dubai like when you first arrived? It must have been very different from today,” I offer.
“When I got here in 2002, the main thoroughfare, Sheikh Zayed Road, had only four or five buildings on it. There was a trade center, a hotel and three apartment buildings, and when you drove from Dubai to Abu Dhabi it was all desert; these days, it’s completely urbanized. In 2006 they started to build the Dubai Marina and a number of skyscrapers. Over the next few years the infrastructure grew like crazy. They were building bridges, roads, malls, hotels, office buildings and residential buildings, you name it. Thirty percent of all the cranes in the world were located in Dubai. It was like they were building an Eiffel Tower on every block, and there’s still a lot of work going on. Most recently, they have been busy planning Expo 2020 Dubai, which has now been postponed until 2021, so it takes some pressure off to finish everything so quickly. There’s even talk of the government allowing Israeli passport holders in,” he says.
Lone Jew in the Gulf
“What was it like to live there as a Jewish person when you first arrived?” I inquire.
“To be honest, most people already knew that I was Jewish from my days in Germany, and the word spread. They also knew that textiles are a very Jewish industry, just like the diamond industry. But being Jewish has never been an issue for me in Dubai. I have thousands of customers, and in my 18 years of living here I’ve had only one unpleasant incident.
“I was in someone’s home for a private appointment, and there were approximately 20 women. My daughter had come along to help me, which she sometimes did. At one point my daughter asked me if I’d heard one of the women make a comment about me being Jewish. I hadn’t, and I told her that it didn’t bother me much. Anyhow, in the middle of this appointment the women went off to pray, but when they returned, the woman who had called me a Jew didn’t return with them. She’d also left behind a heap of fabrics she’d selected, maybe 15 or 20 pieces, and the fabric had already been cut.
“I approached the woman of the house and asked her where the missing woman was. She didn’t know. When I told her that she’d been speaking derogatorily about the fact that I was Jewish, she was very embarrassed. She kept apologizing that a member of her party had treated me that way, and that it happened in her home. I packed up all the fabric the woman had walked away from and formed a bundle, and I asked the woman of the house to give it to her. ‘Tell her that the Yahud gave her a present,’ I said. The woman of the house kept insisting that I was always welcome and that my religion didn’t bother her at all, and she promised that she would never allow such a thing to happen again. But all my other interactions with people in the UAE have been cordial over the last 18 years.”
Mr. Wolf has two children. His daughter married a cardiologist; they live in England with their two children. His son lives in Frankfurt, and recently had a son of his own.
People, Not Politics
“I really try to stay out politics. In 2004, a high-ranking official asked me, ‘Why are you killing poor old blind people?’ He was referring to Israel’s targeted assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, who was paralyzed and nearly blind by then. I didn’t really want to comment, but I told him that I had nothing to do with what the Israelis did, and that it was because of people like Yassin and other terrorists that all Arabs were suspect whenever they traveled outside their home countries. The official thought for a minute and then said, ‘You know what? You make a very good point.’ The only reason it come up in the first place was that I happened to be in his house and the TV was on, and there was a news story about it. Right now, the UAE and Israel don’t have diplomatic relations, but I always hear people saying things like, ‘We have the money and Israel has the knowledge.’ If both countries could work together it would be a great thing, and to me it looks like things are heading in that direction.”
“How many Jews would you say live in the UAE?” I ask Mr. Wolf.
“It’s difficult to ascertain the exact number, but we believe that there are approximately 1,500 Jews spread out in all seven emirates that make up the country,” he replies.
“Are most of them in Dubai?”
“Yes. There are over 150 families in Dubai and others in Abu Dhabi. But there are also Jews elsewhere.”
“Were you the first Jew to live in Dubai?”
“It’s possible that there were others, but they never identified themselves. I lived here for years before I met another one. To my knowledge, I was the only Jew not eating treif and putting on tefillin. Then a few years ago, I was on the phone with a friend from Asia who asked me where I was planning to be for Rosh Hashanah. I told him that I was thinking of spending it with my kids in Europe, or else I’d just stay in Dubai. ‘You do know that there’s a Jewish community in Dubai, don’t you?’ he asked. I hadn’t. He made some phone calls for me and ended up getting in touch with someone from Chabad in New York, and that person connected me with a representative of the Jewish community in Dubai named Rabbi Levi Duchman. I called him, and we agreed to meet the following day. Our meeting ended up lasting five or six hours! That’s when I found out that there was a community here, and I spent Rosh Hashanah with them. It was amazing to see Jewish men, women and children practicing our religion so openly in a Muslim country.
“That Purim I attended the Jewish community’s Purim party, which was held in the Burj Al Arab Hotel with over 200 participants. It was the first time a Jewish event had ever taken place there. It was a big kiddush Hashem. I had always felt like an orphan, and after so many years of being alone, it felt like I’d gotten my family back. For all those years I’d basically kept to myself, aside from my business meetings. Every now and then, when I was traveling somewhere or in an airport, I would come across an occasional Chabad rabbi or overhear someone speaking Hebrew. But that was it.”
A Rose in the Desert
“Tell me a little about the Jewish community,” I say next.
“A very large part of the community consists of Sephardic Jews from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Egypt who are here for business. These are families with children. Rabbi Levi has been educating the Jewish children of the Emirates from the day he arrived here. Baruch Hashem, we now have a proper talmud Torah with over 40 students in its own building that serves as the Jewish educational headquarters for the entire UAE. The community is being built up one step at a time. We recently got a big shipment of kosher meat from the United States that made headlines. We had been schechting our own chickens for a while, but beef was really hard to come by. Anyone who traveled outside the country would make sure to bring back some steaks, pastrami and a couple of sausages, but it was always on a small scale. Now we’re importing meat on a large scale, so there’s plenty available. The local supermarkets also carry a lot of imported products that are under the supervision of the OU and other big kashrus agencies. You can also obtain kosher wine and bread.”
“What are your thoughts on Jewish people moving to the UAE? Is it safe for Jews?”
“Dubai is a very nice place,” he says. “It’s very advanced. It’s also one of the safest places in the world. You can walk down the street with a 25-carat diamond and nothing will happen to you. In London or Paris, you’d be mugged in no time. The security here is top level. But the cost of living is on the high side, so it’s usually only people who are well-to-do or those with successful businesses who come to live here. As I said, it’s an especially good place to do business if you have something new and innovative to bring to the market. During the Arab Spring, people from all over the Middle East came to Dubai because it was safe. There are also no taxes here, which is certainly a big draw. Unlike the other countries in the Gulf, most of the business here has nothing to do with oil. It’s a very diversified economy.”
“Tell me about the standard of living,” I say.
“It’s expensive to live here, but you can have luxuries that, if you wanted them in Europe, you’d have to be a millionaire to afford. For example, you can have three maids, a gardener, a pool technician and a driver for only 2,000 euros a month. In Europe, it would cost you 30,000 euros.”
“What does being the president of the Jewish community mean to you?”
“It’s a very great honor. I’m sure that there are others who might be better at this than I am, as I’m not the kind of person who gives long speeches. I like to work quietly behind the scenes. But I am very proud to be part of making history, and I hope that one day there will be ten shuls in the Gulf!”
“Has the royal family been welcoming to the Jewish community?”
“I don’t like to ask for help, but they are very kind people and are always willing to assist us with anything that is needed to build up the community. The next project on our list, among others, is to build a mikvah. Now that we have kosher food, Jewish people are much more excited about the prospect of coming here. The government of Abu Dhabi is in the process of building something called the Abrahamic House. It’s going to have a mosque, a church and a synagogue in separate buildings but on the same piece of land. It’s an important symbol of tolerance and is expected to be completed in two or three years. Every Shabbos we recite a prayer in shul for the rulers, government and armed forces of the United Arab Emirates. A musical rendition was recently posted online. It’s very beautiful.”
[The video, with Arabic and English subtitles, has been seen by over 100,000 viewers. The tefillah was sung by Haim Israel, an Israeli chazan. “The UAE is a Muslim country that is doing whatever it can to support its Jewish community, be it assistance with establishing a synagogue, getting matzah and kosher food to the community during a pandemic, or helping with anything else that is needed. In my eyes,” says Israel, “I see it as a big merit to be the one who sings this blessing. We pray that they should be able to continue to succeed in whatever they do. If my singing this prayer will in any way advance the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE, that would be a great honor.”
In an interview with a local news channel that is distributed across the Arab world, Rabbi Duchman said that the community wanted to show the world their appreciation and pride to be living in the UAE, and how gracious the leadership is.]
“What kind of programs does the Jewish Community Center offer?” I ask Mr. Wolf.
“Aside from the talmud Torah and shul, we offer weekly shiurim as well as various community gatherings. We also have a gemach called the Jewish Relief Program of the Emirates, which is a tzedakah initiative. Whatever a Jewish community needs, we either already have it or we’re going to have it soon. The JCC is a very welcoming place that feels like home. I’ll sometimes be driving down Sheikh Zayed Road and stop in just to have a cup of coffee with Rabbi Levi. We recently moved to a beautiful new location that has an outdoor event space with room for 250 people. The coronavirus has hindered our activities somewhat because of the lockdown, but we’re working hard and seeing a lot of success. It’s beautiful to see the first generation of Jewish children growing up here. It’s unbelievable that all this is taking place in a country with Sharia-based laws that had no Jews only 30 years ago, right in the heart of the Islamic world.”
Living with the Locals
“Do you speak Arabic?
“I understand it, and whenever I have time I try to learn to speak it better. Rabbi Levi not only speaks Arabic fluently but he can also read and write. A lot of the older people here don’t speak English very well, so it’s important to know Arabic,” he says.
“Can a foreigner own property in Dubai?”
“Yes. There are some locations where foreigners aren’t allowed to buy property, but there are also freehold areas where they can. You can buy a waterfront apartment here for under $600,000, which would be impossible in any major European city.”
“Is it difficult to get a residency permit?”
“Not at all. People from all over the world can get one either by investing in the local economy or opening a local business. Anybody can be a resident,” he explains.
“You know,” he adds, “aside from the many Jews who are part of our community, we also get a lot of Jewish tourists and businessmen. We are very pleased that we will now be able to provide them with everything they need. When are you going to visit us again?” he asks.
“As soon as they open the borders I’ll be back, with Hashem’s help,” I tell him.
“We look forward to hosting you very soon.”
While most Jewish communities in Muslim countries are shrinking from year to year, despite the odds, this community is flourishing. Apparently, the Jews of the UAE can now have their kosher steak and eat it, too.