Illustration by Dhabia Al Mansoori

The Legacy of the Jewish Learning Fellowship at NYUAD and Beyond

The Jewish Learning Fellowship was set up to provide students a space for interfaith dialogue centering Jewish perspectives. We look into the origins of the initiative and how it marks the recent public recognition of the UAE’s Jewish community.

Every Wednesday and Thursday, a group of about 20 students come together on Zoom to take part in NYU Abu Dhabi’s inaugural Jewish Learning Fellowship. Organized by the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life in NYU New York, students discuss topics such as rest and friendships — all while learning about the Jewish perspective.
“We usually read an excerpt of something and discuss what it means… [how] it can be applied to today or the past, or how it applies to different non Jewish communities and how there are parallels between experiences,” shared Hannah Kasak-Gliboff, Class of 2021 and a participant in the Wednesday class.
The Jewish Learning Fellowship, developed by the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life in NYUNY, started in spring 2007 as a program that is centered around the study of Jewish ideas in an informal environment.
“We quickly realized that this model that we were advancing was something which was not only welcomed, but needed,” said Yehuda Sarna, Executive Director of the Bronfman Center and Chief Rabbi of the UAE.
The 10 week conversational seminar attracted 50 students in its pilot rollout at NYU and the number doubled the following semester. Jewish centers at other universities also saw the value of JLF, and very soon it was replicated at hundreds of campuses across North America.
“With the current pandemic and the move to remote learning, we decided to try something that I’ve always wanted to try which is to extend the Jewish Learning Fellowship to global sites,” Sarna shared. “We tried Abu Dhabi because that’s where we knew there was a small concentration of Jewish students.”
Daniella Aruina, Class of 2021, was part of JLF in New York and helped spread the word about the Abu Dhabi fellowship. Aruina, whose father is Jewish, hoped that JLF would help increase the Jewish community’s visibility on campus.
“In my freshman year when I first came here I wouldn’t tell anyone [I was Jewish],” Aruina admitted. “I wasn’t sure if I should share this information or not, but everything on campus is very chill in terms of religion and ethnic or cultural background, so I’m definitely more open to sharing this now.”
Last semester, she organized a mini Hanukkah event by leaving traditional dishes like potato pancakes and donuts in the lounge to share with anyone who was interested in learning about the culture through its cuisine.
“A lot of people on campus don’t necessarily have much of an understanding of Judaism,” noted Kasak-Gliboff, whose father is Jewish. She noted that she was met with puzzled looks when she talked about things such as Hanukkah which she previously assumed was common knowledge. “That kind of made me realize that there’s this opportunity for people to learn about Judaism, even just the basic idea of a world religion.”
Kasak-Gliboff wasn’t aware of the Jewish community that existed on campus prior to this year, when a Hanukkah celebration was organized by Michael Shiloh, Associate Professor of Practice of Interactive Media.
Shiloh grew up in Israel where he practiced his Jewish identity secularly. Since moving to Abu Dhabi, he has become very involved with the UAE Jewish community and many of NYUAD’s Jewish initiatives, including JLF, can be attributed to him: “I was interested in the Jewish community here not because I wanted the orthodox ceremonies, but because I just wanted to be around people from a common background.”
“It was a great way to be among people, to hear some of the songs and prayers that I remember from my youth and to meet other Jews, other Israelis in the [UAE] community,” he noted.
“This is the first new Jewish community being established in the Arab world in centuries,” Sarna pointed out. The UAE and Israel established formal diplomatic relations with each other after signing the U.S. brokered Abraham Accords in Aug. 2020.
In September 2020, a few days after the signing of the Abraham Accords, Shiloh celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, with the Jewish community in Dubai. The community had previously gifted an ornate Torah to the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi, with an inscription honoring his father “for setting up a country that is very tolerant and welcoming of all communities.”
The community has an agreement with the Sheikh that the Torah would be loaned back once a year for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and since Shiloh was making the trip from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, he was given the opportunity to receive it. “It was very symbolic and moving and emotional … I felt very fortunate to be part of that,” he shared.
“The Abraham Accords and the opening up of tourism from Israel… undoubtedly brought more visibility to the Jewish community here. The truth is that it’s also been a little dislocating,” Sarna admitted. “You’re very used to intentionally maintaining a private identity and then you hear Hebrew being spoken in every hotel lobby in Dubai… it can be a little destabilizing.”
In early 2019, Sarna was asked to serve as the nation’s chief rabbi by the Jewish Council of the UAE, which had recognized the Jewish community’s need for a publicly identifiable religious leader. Sarna was also selected to co-chair a research group set up by the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council of the Emirates, with the aim of dismantling harmful stereotypes about the Jewish community and others and aiding the former in their religious practices.
The rabbi first connected to the UAE through NYUAD, when President Emeritus John Sexton invited him to attend the university’s very first Candidate Weekend in 2009. Sarna proceeded to visit Abu Dhabi several times a year for more CWs and to host gatherings, such as a Shabbat dinner, for Jewish students and faculty. He eventually connected with the wider Jewish community in Dubai and started ministering to them.
Jaisal Friedman, Class of 2020, recounted his memory of one of Sarna’s visits, where he had the opportunity to show around the visitors from the Bronfman Center:
“They were here to go pray and [to mark the first trip] by NYU folks to the UAE as… Jews. I got the chance to show them around campus, and then I went to service with them. And that was a really cool experience because...the Jewish community for the first time was public in a sense, because before that it was… not something that was… publicly discussed or even in the public domain of knowledge.”
“We’re on the cusp of a massive reweaving of Jewish and Muslim, Jewish and Arab stories,” Sarna predicted. “Jews and Arabs have come to understand themselves outside of the context of each other. What we’re in the process of seeing is a retelling of the Jewish story which incorporates the Arab story and [vice versa].”
Charlie Fong is News Editor and Naeema Mohammed Sageer is Deputy News Editor. Email them at
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