How a Hasidic Wedding in the UAE Went Viral on Instagram
When Levi Duchman and Lea Hadad, members of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, were married in front of more than 1,500 guests at the Hilton Abu Dhabi Yas Island hotel on Sept. 14, there was one moment so notable that it went viral on Instagram: a video of the Hasidic groom dancing joyously with his friend, Abdalla Almaazmi, along with other Muslim and Jewish men.
The video is notable, in part, for what it symbolized: The growth of the Jewish population in the United Arab Emirates, especially since 2020, when the country signed the Abraham Accords, a landmark deal that normalized relations between Israel and several Arab countries.
Rabbi Duchman, 29, has served as a rabbi and Chabad emissary in the United Arab Emirates since he was 21. He estimated that since the signing, the number of Jews living in the Emirates has risen fivefold, to about 10,000.
“To bring my family, my parents, our heritage, our traditions and to share this with the local population, this was so 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 has now joined him in Abu Dhabi.
Family and friends flew in from Belgium, the United States, Morocco and Israel, and rabbis traveled from Turkey, Iran, Singapore, Nigeria and beyond.
And as a result of Rabbi Duchman’s extensive efforts to develop relationships locally, 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 the Burj Khalifa; Xavier Chatel, the French ambassador to the Emirates; and Alison Milton, the Irish ambassador to the Emirates.
Such religious and cultural diversity is “not typical” for a Hasidic wedding, Rabbi Duchman said. To help people understand the ceremony, the couple provided informational booklets.
The couple also wanted their guests to connect with the dancing tradition at Hasidic weddings, so they flew in 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 Neshama Choir from Israel.
“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, thank you.’”
Ms. Hadad, whose father, Menahem Hadad, is the chief rabbi in Brussels, and Rabbi Duchman met this spring, after a friend of Rabbi Duchman’s family suggested that they could 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 the director of her program, Mindy Shmerling, who said that Rabbi Duchman was interested in meeting her.
“I was like, ‘What? He’s this famous rabbi, this incredible 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 about 250 years ago and whose representatives can be found all over the world. During his tenure in the Emirates, Rabbi Duchman has helped establish a Jewish, Hebrew-speaking nursery in Dubai called Mini Miracles; founded a government-licensed agency for kosher food; and organized the building of a mikvah, a body of water used for purification.
Rabbi Duchman flew to Israel primarily to meet Ms. Hadad. They met for their first date at Hilton Tel Aviv on May 5 at 10 p.m., the only time he could squeeze into his schedule. Since it was past dinnertime, Ms. Hadad drank a Coca-Cola 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.
After the date, Ms. Hadad called the director of her program. “I remember saying that my first impression was that he’s 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 soft, very driven to build a nice, warm, welcoming home,” he said.
Afterward, they met seven more times. In the Chabad tradition, people date with the purpose of finding a spouse, so dating is more about quality than quantity. “We’re not going out to go out,” Ms. Hadad said. “We’re not looking to become friends. We’re looking to see if we can become husband and wife.”
It did not take long for Ms. Hadad to decide that Rabbi Duchman was right for her. “I met a lot of guys before meeting Levi,” she said. Every time, she felt that something was off. “I was always doubting myself or the guy, it was never clear,” she said.
This time, after the third date, she realized that she had no doubts, and that if he proposed the same day, she would say yes. “My mind was clear and my heart was clear,” she said.
She said she appreciated Rabbi Duchman’s listening skills, his intentionality in achieving goals and his big heart. And she liked his openness. Growing up, she said, her family’s “door was always open. We always hosted people for holidays and Shabbat. It was very important that my partner for life will be open to this value.”
For one of their dates, on May 29, Ms. Hadad and Rabbi Duchman took a day trip to Haifa and to Acre, also called Akko, in north Israel. They expected to be gone for a few hours; in the end, they were away for nine. It was on this trip that Mr. Duchman realized he wanted to marry Ms. Hadad. “When you’re with Lea, it’s a blast,” he said.
What convinced him was hearing different stories about her many friendships and, he said, “seeing how open-minded she was, and that she really respected and understood why I do what I do in my professional life.” He knew that whoever married him would have to be ready to move to Dubai and to 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 of Chicago at 13, then, at 15, went to Yeshivas Lubavitch Manchester in England. At 17, he started 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, Calif.; and Ovruch, Ukraine, Mr. Duchman pitched Abu Dhabi as his next destination.
When he and another student rabbi arrived on the N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi campus in 2014, their suitcases were packed full of matzo and kosher food so they could organize Seder, the feast that takes place during the Passover holiday, for about 34 people. “We were there to support the needs of a very, very small Jewish community at that point,” Rabbi Duchman said.
Months later, he moved to the Emirates permanently as a rabbi. He has since opened four synagogues and this year 1,600 people attended the Passover events that Rabbi Duchman organized.
Ms. Hadad, 27, studied for two years at the Bais Moshe Chaim (B.M.C.) Teacher’s Seminary for Jewish women in Quebec, from age 18 to 20. Afterward, she worked as a dorm counselor for one year at B.M.C. Center, then returned to Brussels, where she helped her father and her mother, Batcheva Hadad, organize events like the annual Purim feast and a yearly “Mega Challah Bake.” She was visiting her sister in Tel Aviv when the pandemic began and ended up staying there for more than two years.
After one of their dates, Rabbi Duchman called Ms. Hadad and said that their next meeting should be in New York. Though he didn’t make his intentions explicit during the call, the location gave her a hint. New York is where Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the revered Chabad leader also known as the Rebbe, is buried. His grave is a deeply significant spiritual site for his followers, and couples go there to ask for his blessings before marriage.
In New York, Ms. Hadad met a large portion of Rabbi Duchman’s family, including his parents, Rabbi Sholom Duchman and Feige Duchman. He met her father and two of her siblings, Sara Hadad, 34, and David Aharon Hadad, 20. During a brief moment of quiet, 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,” Ms. Hadad said. “I was shaking.”
That evening, the couple received hundreds of congratulatory messages over email and WhatsApp. Because Rabbi Duchman is well-known in the Chabad community, notes came from many countries.
Their wedding reflected the same international ethos. “Being the first resident rabbi here, over eight years, I built up 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, “you had this huge group of people from different backgrounds, different traditions.”
“It’s a wedding I’ll never forget,” said David Zabinsky, 29, an entrepreneur from the Boston area, who first met Rabbi Duchman in 2018 at a Hanukkah party and has been friends with him since. “I was stuffing my face with lox with my very close Emirati friend. That, to me, is beautiful.”
“That was quite an experience for me,” said Mr. Almaazmi, 44, the friend who appeared in the viral video.
Mr. Almaazmi, an educator in Dubai, added that the mixing of Arab and Jewish people in celebration left an indelible mark on him. “We always had a historic lack of acceptance,” he said. “All of a sudden, we accept each other, we’re together, sharing the same table, eating a feast together. It was an amazing feeling. I never thought that would happen, ever.”
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On This Day
When Sept. 14, 2022
Where Hilton Abu Dhabi Yas Island
Clothing From the Rebbe During the part of the ceremony that is under the huppah, Rabbi Duchman wore an item of Rabbi Schneerson’s old clothing, and Ms. Hadad wore a veil that is made from cloth once owned by Chaya Mushka Schneerson, Rabbi Schneerson’s late wife. Per custom, Rabbi Duchman wore a coat over the clothing to protect it, which had a lot of guests asking why he was so warmly dressed in the Abu Dhabi heat.
As Kosher as It Gets One of Rabbi Duchman’s accomplishments in the Emirates was to start the Emirates Agency for Kosher Certification in 2020. According to him, the wedding was “the largest Jewish kosher event in the country.” Unfortunately, the bride and groom were too busy socializing during the wedding to taste anything. “We didn’t really get to eat,” Ms. Hadad said.
A Special Date The date of the wedding purposely 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.