Rabbi Jacob Herzog

Rabbi Jacob Herzog has taken upon himself the task of reaching out to Jews in the desert kingdom.

By Pesach Benson, United With Israel

At first glance, the idea of Saudi Arabia having a chief rabbi seems quite ludicrous. The desert kingdom is known as the birthplace of Islam. Religious minorities and foreign workers of any faith may not openly practice their religion. Other forms of discrimination against non-Muslims abound.

According to historian Bernard Lewis, when Islam’s founder, Muhammed, said on his deathbed, “Let there not be two religions in Arabia,” he was referring to Jews. That explains the lack of synagogues, churches or even openly organized prayer gatherings for any non-Muslim faith

But that’s not stopping New York-born rabbi Jacob Herzog from launching his own Jewish outreach on the Arabian peninsula, possibly the first in a millenia as far as anyone knows. An unknown number of Jews work in Saudi Arabia, primarily American foreign contractors, businessmen, diplomats and people serving in the armed forces.

The Wall Street Journal caught up with Herzog, a dual U.S.-Israeli national, to learn more about his outreach efforts and his vision of synagogues, Jewish schools, even a mikvah (ritual bath). Speaking about his most recent trip to Saudi Arabia, Herzog told the Journal, “You have to make a leap of faith and see what the reaction is.”

Herzog didn’t get any Royal audience, but he’s optimistic that time is on his side.

“I understand that, for the kingdom, it’s a very big major leap,” he added. But Jewish life in the Persian Gulf states has become more open, a byproduct of the Abraham Accords.

In February, Jews in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and, yes, Saudi Arabia, launched the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities. The AGJC is supervising kashrut and organizing battei din (rabbinical courts) to adjudicate civil disputes and resolve issues of personal status and ritual.

Jewish prayer services are now held in Bahrain, and kosher food is becoming widely available in the United Arab Emirates.

The Saudis are building a new high-tech city, Neom, on the Red Sea opposite Egypt. Herzog expects Jews will be involved in developing the project and visiting as tourists. The tourism angle isn’t far-fetched. In 2020, before the COVID pandemic, the Saudis hosted a delegation of Israeli journalists and bloggers.

The rabbi fervently hopes to get permission from the Saudi royal family. The kingdom, however, does not appear to be in any rush.

“Although Saudi Arabia has long promoted interfaith dialogue, and our leadership has met with many leaders representing different faiths to further that effort, Mr. Herzog’s visit to the kingdom was not part of that effort,” an official at the Saudi embassy in Washington told the Journal.

In April, Herzog told Makor Rishon he hopes to move to Saudi Arabia eventually.

“If you ask the American embassy in Riyadh about the chief rabbi in Saudi Arabia, you will be referred to me. All Saudi institutions know me, including the ministries of interior and foreign affairs, and even the most isolated places. I have personal permission from the authorities to hold prayers for 120 Jews, and the next step is to obtain a place,” he said.