(Courtesy of Star-K) The historic “Abraham Accord” peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has not only fully normalized the diplomatic relations between the two countries, it has paved the way for cooperation in tourism, education, healthcare, security and trade. Even prior to the accord signing, the Department of Culture and Tourism issued a bilingual declaration instructing the managers of all hotel establishments to adhere to and implement kosher food standards in the capital, Abu Dhabi.
Yet, for STAR-K Certification, conducting kashrut business in the UAE is nothing new. For about six years—before the Abraham Accord was even a thought—the agency has been traveling to Dubai to attend the Gulfood trade show, the world’s largest annual food and beverage trade exhibition. It is the crossroads for STAR-K’s regional presence in the South Asia region.
STAR-K Kashrut Administrator Rabbi Avrohom Mushell heads the agency’s Far East & South Asia division and has worked alongside his STAR-K Asia team, Rabbi Amos Benjamin and “Rabbi Joel” Weinberger—who run the STAR-K Far East and India/Sri Lanka offices, respectively—in addition to STAR-K’s Cochin office associates. STAR-K’s work in Dubai, he mentioned, led to a further development—its strong base in India, which has helped STAR-K branch out by setting up contacts in Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
“The Gulfood trade show puts Dubai on the map of food industry production and distribution worldwide,” noted Rabbi Mushell. “We have used Dubai as a uniquely-placed venue for working with countries in Asia and the Middle East. Many Indian vendors use Dubai as a launching point for their products to enter the Middle East. As a result, business opportunities for production and distribution continue to grow there.”
STAR-K Kashrut Administrator Rabbi Tzvi Rosen describes the trade show as having a very Western feel, rather than a Middle Eastern one.
Rabbi Rosen noted, “I wasn’t really in Dubai long enough to interact—although I did manage to pose for a photo with my new friend, Abdul Abdelak. He invited me to his booth and when I asked him what the name of his business is, he told me, ‘AMAZOUN.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, like “mazon” (food in Hebrew)?’ ‘No!,’ he said, ‘AMAZON!’ He was a food distributor in Dubai.
“When I visited his booth the next day, he was so happy to see me he introduced me to all his friends,” continued Rabbi Rosen. “I had a very nice time with him and got a very positive impression of Dubai residents.”
STAR-K Kashrut Administrator Rabbi Chananya Jacobson visited the agency’s certified companies in the UAE, pre-COVID. “Dubai is a very interesting place; it is full of startling juxtapositions,” he said. “Walking down the street, you are just as likely to see men wearing kanduras and ghutras as you are suits and ties. The factories are all on the outskirts of town. Although it is a really a built-up metro city with impossibly tall buildings, it suddenly stops and turns into desert—there’s nothing but sand.”
One of Rabbi Jacobson’s assignments while in the UAE was doing an initial inspection of a state-of-the-art chocolate company.
“I’ve been to several food manufacturers in India and other countries, and they are usually little offices tucked away in an industrial plot. This office looks like it’s Facebook or Google. It is a very modern, open, all glass-walled office, complete with a game room and a cafeteria where the employees can snack on chocolates. They are doing things differently there than they are in India and China, which made an impression on me—there’s a lot more flash.”
While in Dubai, Rabbi Jacobson davened in one of two Orthodox shuls in the city. “I toured the shul with fantastic people, community residents Ross and Elli Kriel, with whom I had a nice chat,” shared Rabbi Jacobson. “The shul is housed in a villa; the bedrooms host guests from around the world. There is a community kiddush on Shabbos, prepared in the shul’s kitchen. In the aron kodesh, I saw something which must be unique for an Ashkenazi shul: a sefer Torah with a mantel that is inscribed in Arabic! It’s a nice out-of-town shul and every person that davens there has a story—I guarantee it!”
The Kriels have played an integral role in their community. Ross Kriel is the founder and president of the Jewish community of the Emirates; his wife, Elli, is the founder of Elli’s Kosher Kitchen, a STAR-K-certified company which she launched in 2019 during the inauguration of “The Year of Tolerance.”
“We are proud to welcome Elli’s Kosher Kitchen—which offers recipes infused with locally- sourced flavors popular in the Emirati culture, prepared under the strictest kosher supervision—to the STAR-K family,” remarks STAR-K President Avrom Pollak. “We are also excited about the numerous inquiries that we are getting from UAE companies that manufacture food chemicals and other specialty foods suitable for export.”
STAR-K’s Director of Development Steve Sichel traveled to Dubai for the first time when he was invited to present a kosher seminar at the Gulfood trade show to Turkish exporters; it was arranged through the Turkish government. “It was really a whirlwind tour. I had flown to Sri Lanka to do inspections, spent Shabbat in Cochin, and then flew to Dubai. It was interesting giving the presentation because many of the people in the audience did not know English; I had a translator.”
Remarked “Rabbi Joel,” “We certify a variety of products—from dates to baklava (see them in Dubai Duty Free) and aluminum pans to gum acacia. Active in Dubai since 2014, we play the role of a partner and supporter of the community as it develops in both its physical and spiritual growth. We look forward to growing in the region and continue exemplifying what we do best— with a smile.”
Rabbi Mushell concurred, “STAR-K is proud to have been a long-standing source of support to the fledgling Dubai Jewish community and we look forward to continued growth throughout the region.”