Rabbi Levi Duchman gave his heart to the United Arab Emirates at age 20, when Jewish life in that Arab land still seemed like a pipe dream.
At a time when many of his peers were still living at home or focused solely on their studies, he was busy building the Jewish infrastructure that years later would help the Abraham Accords flourish.
His personal religious journey that brought him to the Emirates had little to do with the geopolitics that allowed Israel to formally establish ties with the UAE in 2020.
If anything it was an event he could hardly have imagined on his first trip, to lead a Passover seder for Jewish students at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus in 2014.
“Ever since then I fell in love with the UAE,” told The Jerusalem Post. Within months he was back in the country as a Chabad emissary, working to establish a mechanism that would allow a Jewish community to put down roots in the country’s sandy dusty landscape.
“This is where my community is and this is where I will stay for the rest of my life.”Rabbi Levi Duchman
“You have the feeling that the impossible does not exist, a young person can come and make a difference,” Duchman said.
Over eight years after his first trip, the tall gregarious rabbinical leader, now age 29, sat and spoke with the Post on the second floor of the Mini Miracles Kosher Multilingual Nursery and Preschool-Dubai, which he founded.
He also put in place a mikveh, a Jewish community center, Emirates Agency for Kosher Certification, a synagogue and an overall umbrella group called Jewish UAE.
“This is where my community is and this is where I will stay for the rest of my life,” he said.
Duchman, referred to by almost everyone as simply “Rabbi Levi,” made headlines last week when he turned his union to Lea Hadad of Belgium into the largest public wedding in the history of the Gulf, let alone in the Emirates.
It was his second brush with history. Two years earlier, just prior to the signing of the Abraham Accords, he became the first officially licensed rabbi in the United Arab Emirates.
Significance of UAE's first rabbinical license
That document of recognition states that this is “license number 001,” Duchman said. “It was important for the UAE that this certificate should be issued before the signing of the Abraham Accords.”
Its issuance was symbolic for “the UAE that this is an open and tolerant place,” he said.
“Independently of what their political relationship is with other countries, they are here to support the Jewish community and the Jewish people from around the world,” Duchman said.
His has not been the most typical journey for a Jewish kid born in Brooklyn to an eastern European Chabad family that arrived in the United States prior to the Holocaust.
Many of the men in his family are rabbis, including his brothers and his father who is the head of Colel Chabad. The charity organization began in 1788 and is the oldest and largest food security organization in Israel.
Duchman recalled that he grew up in an atmosphere of Islamophobia that existed in the aftermath of the attack on the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center.
It was an attitude that runs counter to the philosophical belief of Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who deeply believed in the importance of strong Jewish-Muslim ties, he explained.
Schneerson believed it was important to have Jewish communities in Arab countries, Duchman said. He would communicate with the king of Morocco and he sent the first Chabad emissary there in the 1950s, Duchman explained adding that Chabad emissaries were also dispatched to Yemen, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon.
It was Schneerson’s belief that if “you have strong Jewish communities in the Muslim world it will bring to peace with Israel” because then “Muslims and the Arabs can interact with the Jews” and see that they are not alien,” Duchman said.
It was his sister’s decision to move with her husband to Morocco as Chabad emissaries that helped set him on his path, he added.
At the time he was studying in the UK and Morocco was a three-hour flight compared to six to New York, so he went there for holidays.
“It opened my eyes, it was amazing. My sister had many Moroccan neighbors and you would see the Jewish and Muslim community getting along,” Duchman said, adding that eventually, he opted to move there for two years.
It was like a “magnet... pulled me to Morocco,” he said.
Duchman taught himself Arabic through an online program, a move that helped him when he arrived in the UAE.
At that time, he said, the small number of Jews that lived had come for work or were passing through and there was little to sustain them.
“If someone wanted kosher food, they had to bring it in their suitcases. If they wanted a mikveh, they would have to use the sea. If someone wanted to educate their children, they would have to learn online,” Duchman recalled.
He also developed relationships with UAE officials, so that he could obtain the necessary permits to build Jewish institutions.
“Now the families are moving here because we have a synagogue and a school,” Duchman said. The baseline structure is from Chabad, but the institutions are dedicated to developing and helping all Jewish life, he explained.
“Jewish life here is thriving,” he said, adding that “it’s easier to find kosher food in central Dubai than in central London. Think of how many Jews live in London and how many live in Dubai,” he said.
Duchman's hopes for a growing Jewish community
Duchman said he is hoping that within ten years, there will be a Jewish community that has 20,000-30,000 people.
From the start, he said, the government had been supportive of his effort, but the Abraham Accords had obviously expanded the scope of what was possible.
The Abraham Accords is “much greater than just bringing two countries together. It brought two people together,” he said.
Among the emotional moments that symbolized that union for Duchman was his wedding, to which he had invited many Muslim Emirati friends and officials.
Duchman said that he and Lea “are proud to be Jewish here... What could be more special or unique than having the wedding here.”
But there was also a smaller and more quiet moment that occurred right after the Abraham Accords, an Israeli tourist died suddenly on a Saturday night.
Both he and the UAE official worked with him around the clock, to authorize the body’s flight back to Israel for burial.
Duchman said he had called an official from the Foreign Ministry to ask if they could expedite the paper work on Monday when they opened.
But the official surprised him by explaining that they would not wait, telling him, “Rabbi Levi, we are going to open for you on Sunday,” and they did, they “opened the gates for us.”
The author’s trip to the UAE was sponsored by Chabad.