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Refugees return for Pesach after miraculous exodus

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Not many people would flee a war only when things were truly dire, then fly back into the humanitarian catastrophe to host a seder for refugees with nowhere else to go.

But Johannesburg-born Rebbetzin Rochi Levitansky and her family, who experienced their own real-life exodus as refugees on the run, plan to do just that in the next few days.

After a harrowing journey to Moldova, Romania, and then Israel, they are now in the safe haven of Jerusalem. But they haven’t rested for a moment, often working through the night to help those who couldn’t go.

And they will soon return to Europe, set up a safe place for refugees in Hungary, and host a Pesach seder for hundreds of Jews escaping Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.

Levitansky, who grew up in Johannesburg, has been a Chabad shlucha (emissary) in Sumy, Ukraine, for 17 years. The city is just a half hour’s drive from the Russian border. In the past month she, husband Rabbi Yechiel Levitansky, and their nine children have seen the horrors of war up close but also experienced many incredible miracles.

“We weren’t planning to leave. It didn’t enter our minds. We wanted to stay with our community. But when they started bombing civilians, we realised we needed to go. We asked people [from the community] to join us. We tried to organise a green [humanitarian] corridor. However, many were too frightened to leave.”

Only a few agreed, and the Levitanskys started to make tentative plans. “The biggest issue was finding drivers. Many were frightened to make the journey. We found three drivers, but the night before we were due to go, they each called to cancel. We realised we were on our own.”

In the first of many miracles, the Levitanskys had purchased a minivan a few weeks before the war. “We’ve gone 17 years without a car, but we bought this about seven weeks before the invasion. However it had never been driven because of the winter snow and ice. I hadn’t driven a car in years, never mind on the back roads of Ukraine without having slept for a week and fleeing a war. But this was what we were going to do.

“We made our final decision to go. It was the most frightening day of my life. It was the first time since the war began that we shed a tear – or more than a tear! I’ve never seen my husband cry until then. I felt like I was in physical pain. We asked for a blessing for safety, and that our community shouldn’t feel abandoned – that on the other side, we could help them even more.”

Making decisions about what to pack was heart breaking, but Levitansky strongly believes that she’ll return, and therefore didn’t need to take everything. Their children were reluctant to leave, and the only thing they insisted on bringing was coins from the Rebbe. The rest of the van was packed to capacity with food, documents including their ketubah, a small amount of clothing, and jerry cans with petrol that they were lucky to get through a contact – another miracle.

They left their keys with neighbours, which would allow people to use their bomb shelter and food supplies. Levitansky felt buoyed by a superhuman strength and an inordinate amount of calm as they began their journey. “We already hadn’t slept for a week, but Hashem had given us this supernatural strength to be up all night talking to communities around the world, to work throughout the day, and then make this journey.”

Every few minutes, they were stopped by blockades. Soldiers checked their passports, luggage, and car. They took turns driving for more than 31 hours. By some miracle, Google Maps still worked. “These roads were through forests, with huge potholes filled with water. Our car had lights that were meant for roads that are lit, so they weren’t very bright. It was pitch dark and freezing. I was exhausted, I hadn’t driven a car in years, but here I was doing it like I had driven in a war my whole life! Hashem gave me courage.

“We wanted to complete our journey before Shabbos, and miraculously, made it across the border in 15 minutes. We immediately contacted our community to say there was a way to the border and we could help them map it out. A few agreed, but the next day, they were sent back as soldiers said it was too dangerous. They could try again only about four days after us.”

She was astounded at the kindness of strangers – Jewish and not – who offered food, shelter, even money. “The response to Jews has always been to blame them in times of crisis or to make life difficult for Jewish refugees. But we didn’t see that in Moldova and Ukraine. People thanked us and welcomed us.”

They arrived at their destination an hour before Shabbos, and were even able to light candles and say the brachot over wine and challah. They spent Shabbos with hundreds of other refugees. The next day, they set off for Romania, a three-hour drive. But they then had to wait 10 hours at the border and they didn’t have enough food with them. They spent another night in their van without having eaten the whole day.

In Romania, they were welcomed by Chabad shluchim, and immediately went to the kitchen to help cook for other refugees. The next day, they got on a charter plane to Israel. People sat wherever they could.

“We had spent a week travelling, and were welcomed to Israel in the middle of the night by other shluchim. It was so cold – it’s never been that cold in Israel in 100 years. I’m convinced Hashem did that because all the refugees were arriving in winter clothes.”

It was when they arrived that Levitansky realised how little possessions they had, with their heaviest bag weighing 18kg. Most people take 20kg on holiday. However, they are truly grateful to be safe and in a place where they can continue to help.

“We were told to rest, but for the entire week after we arrived, we barely slept. My husband is American and we could have gone there, but it would waste precious time. Also, we need to be in the same time zone as Ukraine.

“We managed to organise a green corridor for a few hours a day. We’re constantly calling our community to try to help them to flee. We’re organising the delivery of food and medicine, and trying to ensure that refugees have what they need. It’s a miracle that bank cards are still working. My husband managed to organise a blood transfusion for an ill man who couldn’t get dialysis – even when blood is reserved for soldiers.”

They were welcomed at Ben Gurion Airport, and now they are the ones who go there, often waiting for hours when planes are delayed so that refugees arriving in Israel are greeted with open arms.

While their exodus was harrowing, their children put things in perspective. As they arrived in Jerusalem, one daughter said, “Thanks for the best trip! That was the longest trip I’ve ever been on!” Another child said they wished they had brought their Chanukah gelt so they “could help save more people in Sumy”.

For Levitansky, returning to Europe feels right. “Usually in Sumy on Purim, we help the entire community fulfil the mitzvot of the chag. Not doing so this year was difficult. Going back to help others celebrate Pesach is what we’re craving. Seventeen years ago when we left for Ukraine, a doctor told my husband that though Sumy may not have the most modern medical facilities, ‘the healthiest place for any person is where they are happy and have purpose’. We feel that doing this is the healthiest thing for us.”

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Barbara Emdin

    Apr 7, 2022 at 3:54 pm

    Kol HaKavod in capital letters – these are the true schluchim

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