Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 24 November 2020

Meet the UAE's Arabic-speaking rabbi in residence, who fled Lebanon as a child

Multi-lingual Rabbi Dr Elie Abadie also works as a part-time gastroenterologist

Rabbi Elie Abadie will assume the role of a senior rabbi in residence at the Jewish Council of the Emirates on November 1. Shea Agnew 
Rabbi Elie Abadie will assume the role of a senior rabbi in residence at the Jewish Council of the Emirates on November 1. Shea Agnew 

The UAE’s new senior rabbi in residence, Dr Elie Abadie was, you could say, born into the role.

Coming from a family of rabbis who can be traced back to the 15th century in Spain, it was arguably his destiny to fall in line, too.

He was interested in learning about his religion, but he did not seriously consider becoming a rabbi, at least at first.

At the age of 5, he wanted to become a doctor.

“I wanted to be learned as a rabbi, not necessarily function as a rabbi,” Rabbi Abadie, 59, told The National.

My parents escaped from their home through the backdoor as people tried to get into my parents’ house. They left and never returned

Rabbi Abadie on his parents fleeing Syria in 1947

But medicine ultimately became more of a part-time pursuit as his interest in serving the Jewish community developed.

“Life has its challenges and more than challenges, has its surprises,” he said.

Rabbi Abadie was born in Lebanon in 1960. His parents were from Syria and they belonged to a community of about 40,000 Jewish people who lived in the country in the 1940s.

But like many Jewish people in Syria, they left after the UN General Assembly adopted a partition plan for Palestine in 1947.

“My parents lived right next to the synagogue. They saw people enter the synagogue, pillage it, torched it, took out the Torah scrolls and holy books and burnt them,” he said.

“My parents escaped from their home through the backdoor as people tried to get into my parents’ house. They left and never returned.”

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The family sought refuge in Lebanon, where they lived in peace for many years, until tensions increased again in the region, just two years before the 1973 Arab–Israeli War

“We left in 1971 because there was an incident and my family felt like a target,” Rabbi Abadie said.

One day, the family learnt that pictures of Rabbi Abadie’s father, along with two other rabbis, were plastered on walls in Lebanon and printed in Time magazine.

“On the picture, there was a caption saying these are the Zionist agents and an entire article accusing them of being Zionists, which was not true at all," he said.

“They were just Jewish community members in Lebanon.”

That incident, and the arrival of people from the Palestinian Liberation Organisation from Jordan, shook Lebanon's Jewish community.

Rabbi Abadie said his family had little choice but to leave.

But they first had to find a country to accept them because they were refugees under Lebanese law.

Yousef Al Otaiba, UAE ambassador to the US and Rabbi Dr Elie Abadie. Jewish Council of the Emirates
Yousef Al Otaiba, UAE ambassador to the US, with Rabbi Dr Elie Abadie, at a recent event. Courtesy Jewish Council of the Emirates

Mexico seemed like the only choice because they had family there.

“At that time, my oldest brother lived in Mexico since 1965. My father had sisters and cousins in Mexico from the 1940s as they escaped Syria,” he said.

“So my parents asked my brother to plead for our lives to the Mexican government, that we were in danger and we need to leave the country.”

The family was eventually granted permission to move to Mexico, where Rabbi Abadie – already fluent in Hebrew, French and Arabic – mastered Spanish, Italian and Portuguese.

He learnt English much later, when he decided to study medicine.

He turned down offers from two prestigious universities in Mexico City.

“I had to do lab practice and take tests and examinations on the Sabbath day. They could not make an exception,” he said.

“Then I found out about Yeshiva University, a Jewish university in New York, where I could become a doctor without having to desecrate the Sabbath for my studies and lab work or examinations. That’s how I came to the US.”

Rabbi Abadie went to New York at the age of 18.

“I did not speak English in my first year in college in the US. I was fortunate to have a teacher who spoke Hebrew, a teacher who spoke French and a teacher who spoke Spanish, so I took the tests in those languages. I even took biology in Hebrew,” he said.

“I took political science in French and I took history in Spanish."

But it only took him an year to become fluent in English.

He became a rabbi at the university, where there was a seminary, and then graduated to become a doctor.

Today, he practises medicine as a part-time gastroenterologist and hopes to continue treating patients once he moves to the UAE next month.

He has been appointed senior rabbi in residence at the Jewish Council of the Emirates and will take up his post on November 1, if the role receives final approval. He first visited the Emirates about two years ago.

“I met the community and toured the beautiful country. It was truly a pleasure to see such a beautiful country and community,” he said.

“I had to come back again to attend a beautiful ceremony. And I have been in constant touch with the community, advising them and helping them.”

He longs to return to Lebanon and visit Syria to see where his family is from.

“I am proud to be the senior rabbi in the UAE,” he said.

“I look forward to being a part and parcel of the fabric of the UAE population. I will send invitations to all officials to come and visit us and live in an environment of tolerance, acceptance, harmony and coexistence.

“It’s something the whole world needs so badly.”

Updated: October 26, 2020 04:40 PM

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