How a Hasidic wedding in the United Arab Emirates went viral on Instagram

When Levi Duchman and Lea Hadad, members of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, married in front of more than 1,500 guests at the Hilton Abu Dhabi Yas Island hotel on September 14, there was a moment so remarkable that it went viral on Instagram: a video of the Hasidic groom happily dancing with his friend, Abdalla Almaazmi, along with other Muslim and Jewish men.

The video is notable, in part, for what it symbolizes: the growth of the Jewish population in the United Arab Emirates, especially since 2020, when the country signed the Abraham Accords, a landmark agreement that normalized relations between Israel and several countries. Arabs.

Rabbi Duchman, 29, has served as Chabad’s rabbi and emissary to the United Arab Emirates since he was 21. He estimated that since the signing, the number of Jews living in the Emirates has increased fivefold, to about 10,000.

“Bringing my family, my parents, our heritage, our traditions and sharing this with the local people, it was very special,” said Rabbi Duchman, who grew up in Brooklyn and studied in Chicago and Manchester, England. Ms. Hadad, 27, was born in Brussels and has lived in Quebec and Tel Aviv, where she met Rabbi Duchman. She now she has joined him in Abu Dhabi.

Family and friends flew in from Belgium, the United States, Morocco and Israel, and the rabbis traveled from Turkey, Iran, Singapore, Nigeria and beyond.

And as a result of Rabbi Duchman’s extensive efforts to develop relationships at the local level, the guest list also included prominent members of the Emirati community. Among them were Mohamed Alabbar, the founder of Emaar Properties, which developed the Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa; Xavier Chatel, French ambassador to the Emirates; and Alison Milton, the Irish ambassador to the Emirates.

Such religious and cultural diversity is “not typical” of a Hasidic wedding, Rabbi Duchman said. To help people understand the ceremony, the couple handed out informational brochures.

The couple also wanted their guests to connect with the dance tradition at Hasidic weddings, so they brought Avraham Fried, a popular Jewish singer from New York. “You have different diplomats, secular people, people from the Jewish community,” Rabbi Duchman said. “I wanted someone who could speak to these crowds.” Mr. Fried was accompanied by the Israel Neshama Choir.

“I couldn’t stop dancing,” Ms. Hadad said. “They called me so many times to sit down and take a breather, and I was like, ‘No thanks.'”

Ms. Hadad, whose father, Menahem Hadad, is the chief rabbi of Brussels, and Rabbi Duchman met this spring, after a friend of Rabbi Duchman’s family suggested they might be a good romantic match. At the time, Ms. Hadad was enrolled in Beit Shoshana, a religious studies program in Tel Aviv. Shortly after the Passover holidays, which ended on April 23, she received a phone call from her program director, Mindy Shmerling, who told her that Rabbi Duchman was interested in meeting her.

“I was like, ‘What? He is this famous rabbi, this amazing young man,’” Ms. Hadad said. “’How did he find out about me?’”

Rabbi Duchman has made a name for himself among members of the Chabad movement, a branch of Hasidism that was founded some 250 years ago and whose representatives can be found all over the world. During his tenure in the Emirates, Rabbi Duchman helped establish a Hebrew-speaking Jewish nursery in Dubai called Mini Miracles; he founded a government-licensed agency for kosher foods; and organized the construction of a mikveh, a body of water used for purification.

Rabbi Duchman flew to Israel primarily to meet with Ms. Hadad. They met on their first date at the Hilton Tel Aviv on May 5 at 10 p.m., the only time he could fit into her schedule. Since it was past dinner time, Mrs. Hadad had a Coke and he had a coffee. They talked for several hours about their backgrounds and their families: Rabbi Duchman has 12 siblings and Ms. Hadad has seven.

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After the appointment, Ms. Hadad called her program director. “I remember saying that my first impression was that he is a very humble person,” she said. “I met Levi, not Rabbi Levi.”

Rabbi Duchman was also immediately impressed by Ms. Hadad. “She was very humble, very kind, very gentle, very motivated to build a nice, warm, welcoming home,” he said.

Later, they met seven more times. In the Chabad tradition, people date for the purpose of finding a spouse, so dating is more about quality than quantity. “We are not going out for the sake of leaving,” Ms. Hadad said. “We are not looking to be friends. We are looking to see if we can become husband and wife.”

It didn’t take Mrs. Hadad long to decide that Rabbi Duchman was right for her. “I met a lot of guys before I met Levi,” she said. Each time, she felt that something was wrong. “She was always doubting myself or the boy, it was never clear,” she said.

This time, after the third date, she realized that she had no doubts, and that if he proposed to her on the same day, she would say yes. “My mind was clear and my heart was clear,” she said.

She said that she appreciated Rabbi Duchman’s listening skills, his intentionality to achieve goals and his big heart. And she liked her directness. Growing up, she said, her “family door was always open. We always host people for the holidays and Shabbat. It was very important for my life partner to open up to this value.”

For one of their appointments, on May 29, Ms. Hadad and Rabbi Duchman took a day trip to Haifa and Acre, also called Akko, in northern Israel. They expected to be gone for a few hours; in the end, they were out by nine. It was on this trip that Mr. Duchman realized that he wanted to marry Mrs. Hadad. “When you’re with Lea, she’s great,” he said.

What convinced him was hearing different stories about her many friendships and, he said, “seeing how open she was and that she really respected and understood why I do what I do in my professional life.” She knew that whoever married him would have to be ready to move to Dubai and support his efforts to build the Jewish presence there, a task that requires frequent interactions with people of all backgrounds.

Rabbi Duchman left Brooklyn to study at Yeshivas Ohr Eliyahu Lubavitch Mesivta in Chicago at age 13, then, at 15, went to Yeshivas Lubavitch Manchester in England. At 17, he began participating in the Roving Rabbi program, through which, for short periods, Chabad sends student rabbis to cities and towns around the world that do not have a full-time rabbi. After traveling to Ko Samui, Thailand; Pasadena, California; and Ovruch, Ukraine, Mr. Duchman introduced Abu Dhabi as his next destination.

When he and another student rabbi arrived on the New York University campus in Abu Dhabi in 2014, their suitcases were packed with matzah and kosher food so they could host the Seder, the Passover holiday, for some 34 people. “We were there to support the needs of a very, very small Jewish community at the time,” Rabbi Duchman said.

Months later, he moved to the Emirates permanently as a rabbi. Since then he has opened four synagogues and this year 1,600 people attended the Passover events organized by Rabbi Duchman.

Ms. Hadad, 27, studied for two years at the Bais Moshe Chaim (BMC) Teachers’ Seminary for Jewish women in Quebec, from ages 18 to 20. She then worked as a dorm counselor for a year at the BMC Center and then returned to Brussels, where she helped her father and mother, Batcheva Hadad, organize events such as the annual Purim party and an annual “Mega Challah Bake.” She was visiting her sister in Tel Aviv when the pandemic started and she ended up staying there for more than two years.

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After one of their appointments, Rabbi Duchman called Mrs. Hadad and told her that their next meeting should be in New York. Although he didn’t make his intentions explicit during the call, the location gave him a clue. New York is where Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the revered Chabad leader, also known as the Rebbe, is buried. His tomb is a deeply significant spiritual site for his followers, and couples flock there to ask for his blessings before marriage.

In New York, Ms. Hadad met a large part of Rabbi Duchman’s family, including her parents, Rabbi Sholom Duchman and Feige Duchman. She met her father and two of her siblings, Sara Hadad, 34, and David Aharon Hadad, 20. During a brief quiet moment, Mr. Duchman officially asked Ms. Hadad if she would marry him.

At the grave site, the two shared an intense moment as they prayed for Rabbi Schneerson to bless their union, their home and their mission in the Emirates. “I got very emotional,” Hadad said. “I was shaking.”

That night, the couple received hundreds of congratulatory messages via email and WhatsApp. Because Rabbi Duchman is well known in the Chabad community, notes came in from many countries.

Their wedding reflected the same international spirit. “Being the first resident rabbi here, for eight years, I built a lot of friends,” Rabbi Duchman said. Only about 10 percent of the population in Dubai is Emirati. The rest come from all over the world. At the wedding, Rabbi Duchman said, “there was a large group of people from different backgrounds, different traditions.”

“It is a wedding I will never forget,” said David Zabinsky, 29, a Boston-area businessman who met Rabbi Duchman in 2018 at a Hanukkah party and has been friends with him ever since. “I was stuffing my face with smoked salmon with my very close Emirati friend. That, to me, is beautiful.”

“That was quite an experience for me,” said Almaazmi, 44, the friend who appeared in the viral video.

Mr. Almaazmi, an educator in Dubai, added that the mix of Arabs and Jews at the celebration left an indelible mark on him. “We always had a historical lack of acceptance,” he said. “Suddenly, we accept each other, we are together, sharing the same table, eating a feast together. It was an incredible feeling. I never thought that would happen, ever.”

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When September 14, 2022

Where Hilton Abu Dhabi Yas Island

Rebbe’s clothing During the portion of the ceremony that is under the chuppah, Rabbi Duchman wore an item of old clothing from Rabbi Schneerson, and Mrs. Hadad wore a veil that is made from cloth once owned by Chaya Mushka Schneerson, the late wife of Rabbi Schneerson. As per custom, Rabbi Duchman wore a coat over his clothing to protect it, prompting many guests to ask why he was so bundled up in the Abu Dhabi heat.

As kosher as it gets One of Rabbi Duchman’s achievements in the Emirates was to start the Emirates Agency for Kosher Certification in 2020. According to him, the wedding was “the largest kosher Jewish event in the country.” Unfortunately, the bride and groom were too busy socializing during the wedding to prove anything. “We really couldn’t eat,” Hadad said.

a special date The wedding date deliberately coincided with the birthday of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad movement, and the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism.

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