CLUJ-NAPOCA, ROMANIA— They fled a war zone with little more than the clothes on their backs. Less than two weeks later, they were greeted on the tarmac by the prime minister of Israel. The two events bookended an escape that took a group of 100 Jewish children from the Ukrainian city of Zhitomir across the Carpathian Mountains into Romania, and from there to Israel and safety. The rescue, which began on Feb. 24—the day the Russian invasion began—came to a joyful conclusion on Sunday when a special El Al flight touched down at Ben-Gurion International Airport. There, the children literally received the red-carpet treatment.

The rescue succeeded as a result of tight coordination between Chabad of Zhitomir; the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ); Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Aliyah and Integration; Nativ, an Israeli governmental group that works with Jews in Eastern European countries; and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Other flights carrying Ukrainian refugees came to Israel on Sunday, but the children’s flight, which landed at 2:30 p.m. local time, caught the eye of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. So eager was he to greet the youthful passengers that he bounded onto the plane rather than wait for the kids to disembark. On the tarmac were other high-level government ministers, including Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Minister of the Interior Ayelet Shaked and Aliyah Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata. Also attending was IFCJ’s president and CEO Yael Eckstein, whose group paid for the flights.

Of the 100 children, 60 were from Zhitomir’s Jewish children’s home, which helps children from troubled families. It was established by Chabad Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm, leader of Zhitomir’s Jewish community. Wilhelm was on the plane with his wife and three of his 12 children. Also on the flight were another 40 children from Zhitomir’s Jewish community, their parents, educational staff and their families—bringing the total to 150. Reporters from several news outlets accompanied the flight, including JNS.

Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm and Rebbetzin Esther Wilhelm in the lobby of the Grand Hotel Italia in Cluj-Napoca shortly before the flight, March 6, 2022. Photo by David Isaac.

In the last row of the plane sat an elderly couple—two Holocaust survivors, Michal, 88, and Zoya, 86. Michal, who spoke little Hebrew, told everyone who asked, “We just want to go to Israel.” The two had fled the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk to Zhitomir in 2014 when fighting first broke out between Ukraine and Russia, prompted by the latter country. Their house was damaged in the fighting. Wilhelm told JNS, “This is the third time they are refugees. First during the Holocaust, then in 2014 and now.”

Wilhelm’s wife, Esther, credited her husband for his forward thinking. “We definitely didn’t expect a war like this, but my husband did have the foresight, when things were just getting tense, to ask his colleagues and friends in the Carpathian Mountains [along Ukraine’s western border] to rent a place for us so that if we would need to evacuate, we would have where to evacuate to,” she told JNS.

Michal, 88, and Zoya, 86, Holocaust survivors, joined the flight, March 6, 2022. Photo by David Isaac.

The children’s home was the priority “because they would be the most vulnerable. These are children we felt fully responsible for. We take care of all their needs,” said Esther Wilhelm.

With reports of Russian forces rapidly advancing towards their city and explosions ringing in the background, the Wilhelms decided that it was time to move. The staff bundled 60 children from the home onto a bus with time to pack only a minimal amount of clothing, medicine and essential items. The staff loaded the vehicle with food for the journey as Jewish families boarded a second bus.

“It was Thursday at 5 a.m. that war broke out. At 12 o’clock, the children’s home with the rabbis who work there were on their way,” reported Wilhelm.

A mother and daughter board the El Al flight from Cluj-Napoca, Romania to Tel Aviv, March 6, 2022. Photo by David Isaac.

‘I wanted to set a good example’

The buses encountered numerous roadblocks along the route. At each stop, the staff worried they would be turned back. It took 15 hours to arrive at the Carpathian hotel that the Wilhelms had arranged for in advance. They had completed the first stage of their escape.

“It was a difficult trip because it took many hours,” Ilana Moskvitch, 11, told JNS. She described the hotel as a fun place where the children played. There was one exception when they heard explosions and were forced into a shelter. Still, she insisted that “I wasn’t scared. I wanted to set a good example for my two younger brothers.”

Ilana Moskvitch, 11 (left) and her best friend, Orly, on the flight to Israel, March 6, 2022. Photo by David Isaac.

With the situation deteriorating in Ukraine, the rabbi and his staff decided they needed to get the group out of the country. They received help from IFCJ, which has a relationship with the Zhitomir Jewish community spanning some 20 years. Two IFCJ representatives on the plane told JNS that they made an intense effort, together with the Israeli Embassy in Romania, to get the necessary documents for the children, paving the way for their crossing into Romania.

The group crossed the border, arriving in the northwestern Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca on March 2, where they were put up at the Grand Hotel Italia. The city’s Chabad was enlisted to provide kosher food for the refugees during the duration of their stay. Fraidy Orgad, co-director of the city’s Chabad with her husband, told JNS that fortunately, they had enough kosher meat, which is not available locally and is normally shipped in from Poland and other places.

The night before the flight, the children could be found packing what few belongings they had in suitcases donated by Christians in Cluj-Napoca, who also provided toys for the children. All expressed excitement about going to Israel.

Ilana said that “many times, I have told my mother I want to live in Israel. Mom would say, ‘No, here we have friends. We have a school,’ but now she says maybe we will live in Israel because Ukraine is in dire trouble.” Ilana’s parents and brothers were also on the plane; her mother oversaw the Jewish welfare organizations in Zhitomir.

Ilana’s best friend, Orly, sitting next to her on the plane, was one of the kids who came from a troubled home; she lived at the Chabad children’s home and only went to see her family on holidays. She came without her parents, who remained in Ukraine, but with her 15-year-old brother. She said she didn’t know where she wanted to live. “I’m from Ukraine. On the other hand, it might be fun in the land of Israel,” said Orly, noting that she didn’t really know what to expect. It was, in fact, her first time on an airplane.

Sara, a young girl from Zhytomyr, packs her bag on Saturday night before the flight, March 5, 2022. Photo by David Isaac.

‘We don’t know what’s going to happen’

Esther Wilhelm explained that the children on the plane weren’t making aliyah immediately. “We’ll be all together in a place called Nes Harim on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Right now, we’re going for a month and then we’ll decide,” she said. “Whatever happens, it’s going to be very different. I’m sure that many of those who are going now to Israel will stay. The principal of our school is now on her way to the United States, where her son lives. So we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett greets children at Ben-Gurion International Airport, March 6, 2022. Photo by David Isaac.

Wilhelm couldn’t help expressing regret about the community they’d left behind, and which she and her husband had helped rebuild. She said when they arrived in Zhitomir nearly three decades ago, there was no Jewish community to speak of—“there were 5,000 Jews who knew nothing of Judaism.” Together with her husband, they revived the Jewish community, first opening a school. When they realized there were many Jews in villages around Zhitomir (and many social pathologies—alcoholism is rampant in Ukraine, she says), they decided to open dormitories where the children could stay.

Her husband made it clear that he would like every Jew from Ukraine to make aliyah. He told JNS that the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement—who passed away in 1994, had said in the mid-1980s that a Chabad city for olim, or new immigrants to Israel, should be established.

“I think this is the time,” said the rabbi. “There are 200 Chabad shluchim [‘emissaries’] in Ukraine. Most of the Jewish communities in Ukraine are under Chabad. If they make aliyah, we’re talking about 100,000 Jews.”

Yael Eckstein, president and CEO of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, greets a mother and her baby on the tarmac of Ben-Gurion International Airport, March 6, 2022. Photo by David Isaac.

Wilhelm noted that he had lived in Zhitomir for 28 years and had the privilege of instilling in the city’s Jews a recognition that Israel is the land of the Jewish people. He said many already had made aliyah, and that there was a large group of Jews from Zhitomir in Israel, though scattered throughout the country.

Following the red-carpet welcome and after the excitement had subsided, JNS approached Wilhelm and asked how he felt to be in Israel.

As the rabbi responded: “I feel like I’m in the safest place in the world.”

JNS

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