DUBAI – At just 27-years-old, Rabbi Levi Duchman has big shoes to fill. The Brooklyn-born Chabad Rabbi in the United Arab Emirates has been behind the quietly growing Jewish community, which this month, was able to emerge from its humble shadows. In a quiet suburb of Dubai, the city’s population of Jews which congregated around the small villa synagogue each Shabbat and religious holiday, has remained a closely guarded secret, until this month’s historic normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE. “It’s the beginning of a new era not only for Jews in the UAE but for Jews around the world,” Duchman says. “While many Muslim countries look up to the UAE and see it embracing Israel, it will change the relationship of Jews and Muslims all around the world, from Golders Green to Brooklyn.”The deal he said will change the perceptions that both sides have had of one another for decades. “This is the opposite of the perceptions the community has had growing up, of antisemitism, of synagogues closing, of that gap between the two peoples growing so much over the last 70 years,” he said. “So this is a huge deal to rebuild these bridges for the whole Abrahamic community.” Duchman has been at the helm of the now roughly 2000-strong community for the last six years. Though quiet, behind the scenes, it has become home for the members of the community living and working in the emirate. From Shabbat dinners to religious study for children, the community has grown from strength to strength. More recently, it has provided a lifeline to Jews affected by the pandemic, with its Jewish Relief Programme, through the likes of financial aid and food packages. The young Rabbi has long dreamt of being a pivotal player in Jewish-Islamic relations. He has already done much for his young years, having already lived in the UK, Israel, Morocco, before arriving in the Gulf state. “We’ve lived with Muslims through our history; Iran, Syria, Algeria, Mecca, so many countries, and we had a great history in the past. I felt it was my duty to come and build those bridges,” he says.Being amongst the Arab world’s Jewish communities is at the heart of the Chabad ethos. While many in the region left and made Aliyah on the formation of Israel, its Rabbis were sent to support those who chose to stay and helped ensure the communities not only survived, but thrived. The results of this was seen during his three years in Morocco, where he was part of youth programs and Jewish-Islamic outreach. But it is not only in the Emirates where Rabbi Duchman’s role is pivotal. In Bahrain, where there are less than 100 Jews remaining, he is the head of the Chevrot Kadisha burial program and the country’s only Jewish cemetery. Five years ago – aged just 22 – he underwent his first burial, alone, a task he says was not easy as a young Rabbi. Known internationally by his Chabad peers as a charismatic leader, he is revered for taking the community out of the shadows, so much so that he was connected to Benjamin Netanyahu last week via video call, to congratulate him on the success of the community’s work.Rabbi Dovid Cohen, the director of Chabad South London Students and Young Professionals, said that the movement was proud of Duhman for the work he has done in the Emirates. “This is very similar to the successes seen in the likes of Morocco and the former Soviet Union where there are now over 500 centers. Now, they are thriving Jewish communities,” he added.The Dubai community is one of the most diverse in the world, reflective of the almost 200 nationalities calling the city home. Its members hail from the likes of Europe, the Middle East, and South Africa. Prayer books are in multiple languages from French to Spanish, German and Russian and the message of inclusivity and tolerance is what drives Duchman. “These people need a home, love, kaddish … I have to be here,” he said.In September, he will receive his first rabbinic interns, four young men from the US, coming to learn about life amongst the Emirates community. It is the start of many more. “It’s important rabbis should be in this region, see the UAE, feel the tolerance,” he says. “After a month in the UAE they take the experience back to their own community. Slowly slowly, we can change the world.” When Duchman told his family that he would be coming to the Emirates on his next placement, there was some hesitation from the Brooklyn-based family, fearful of sending their son into the unknown. Other than Bahrain, the modern Gulf was somewhat of a Jewish hinterland. Since then, he has taken prominent members of the local Emirati community to meet his family in Brooklyn, and family members have visited the Emirates. It is through such powerful human connections that the kind of Jewish-Islamic relations he has long dreamed of, are now coming to fruition, breaking down the prejudices, the stereotypes, and building meaningful dialogue and connection. Life has changed greatly. In those early years, he would discreetly wear his kippa forward on his head when in public, which coupled with his traditional Hasidic beard, allowed him to pass more as ‘Laith’, than ‘Levi’. Now, ‘The K Kitchen’ can be fully ‘The Kosher Kitchen’, in the Armani Hotel in the world’s tallest tower – the Burj Khalifa – there is even an Instagram account called @kosherdubai and Kosher wine has just been given the green light to be imported to the Emirates. Emirates Airline has Kosher food provided by the Chabad of Thailand. This is just the beginning. An Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi, slated for completion in 2022, will house a mosque, church and synagogue – said to be the most expensive synagogue ever built.The community’s new-found freedom has been patiently awaited for some time. It was announced last year that Israel would have a pavilion at Expo 2020 – now postponed to 2021 – and Israeli athletes have been allowed to compete in the UAE capital. Solly Wolf, president of the Jewish Community of Dubai, has been in the Emirates for 20 years after first coming via his connections to the country’s rulers, to whom he sold textiles. He said that the peace accord was unique since unlike other Arab countries, there are no memories of war between Israel and the UAE. “Here, it was only a media and political ‘war’,” he explains. He said there is much scope for the community to grow now, not only attracting business, tourism and scientific and technical collaboration, but a genuine sense of its becoming a destination for Jews to feel safe. “It’s not been an easy process, but now, I can imagine that within the next few years, the community will grow in the thousands,” he said. 

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