Chabad rabbis may seem omnipresent around the globe, but it’s not every day that you see three sibling emissaries caring for war refugees.
Enter the Stambler brothers.
One brother runs a Chabad operation in war-torn Ukraine, and two others co-direct Chabad in Warsaw.
The rabbis, who were born in Israel to parents from the former Soviet Union, took up their respective positions more than 15 years before the war broke out.
“We do not believe that anything happens by chance,” said Rabbi Levi Stambler, 47, the chief Chabad emissary in Kamianske, Ukraine, and his brother Rabbi Mayer Stambler, 50, co-director of the Chabad House in Warsaw, using the exact same words in separate phone interviews with JNS.
“We believe that there is Divine Providence,” they added. “But you could say that it is very interesting,” said Levi Stambler.
Ringing off the hook
Until the war broke out last year, both Chabad Houses functioned just like any of the thousands of Chabad institutions operating in more than 100 countries around the world, hosting Shabbat and holiday meals for Jewish travelers and locals as well as assisting their local communities with religious classes and rabbinical services.
The war in Ukraine, which is now in its 14th month, changed everything.
“Then the phones started ringing off the hook and people started knocking on doors,” Mayer Stambler recounted.
With Poland serving as the chief gateway from Ukraine, all his brother in Ukraine needed to do to get help with logistics for the thousands of refugees they assisted was pick up the phone.
And call he did.
For everything from food and medicine to personal mail to temporary or permanent relocation packages or just getting away for a week or two from the stress of the bombing—Ukraine was phoning and Poland was calling.
Mostly, it was women and children since men aged 18-60 were not permitted to leave Ukraine. Some of the refugees settled in Poland, others went on to Israel or Western countries, while still others returned to Ukraine as the level of bombings dropped.
Chabad’s emissaries in Poland provided shelter, food, and religious services to those in need. An international fundraising campaign was set up.
“It was really pre-ordained. There is no price attached to such a thing,” Levi said. “Here, with my brother, we have an address for help and assistance.”
Levi has stayed in Ukraine for the whole war, with the exception of attending a wedding in the United States and visiting his children in Israel, he said. He added that his Chabad—which is located in an area of Ukraine that has been “relatively quiet” of late, with only the “occasional missiles falling”—is one of 40 still operating in the country.
His wife, Dina, hosted Ukrainian refugees in Israel for a time before returning to Ukraine. Their children remain in Israel and are continually calling when reports of bombings come in. Visiting their children entails a 15-hour drive to Moldova before boarding a flight to Israel.
The Stambler brothers are gearing up to host seders for hundreds of people in their respective communities. Rabbi Levi will assist about 700 people—including about 450 at a banquet hall and a couple of hundred with take-home seder kits for those who live further away and need to observe the midnight curfew.
Across the border in Poland, Rabbi Mayer will be hosting 200 Ukrainian refugees on full board and about 1,000 other people for the seder.
As the war blew hot and cold, the siblings worked hand in hand.
“For us, it was an amazing opportunity to see what a wonderful job the emissaries in Ukraine did,” said Rabbi Shalom Ber Stambler, 39, co-director of Chabad Warsaw. “We had the merit to help the same congregants and to meet these people who did not lose their faith,” he said.
“To tell you that we understand why we were all here at this time, I cannot answer to that,” Rabbi Mayer said. “There is a reason why we are all here even if we do not always understand it.”
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