'We made it during the 18 minutes'

Chabad couple, with 11 in tow, races from Ukraine to Israel just in time for Sabbath

During a 3-day rush to Kfar Chabad, Mendel and Rivka Borodkin, who work at a girl’s seminary in Dnipro, had to steer a group through a series of bureaucratic and other hurdles

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Mendel and Rivka Borodkin with their now three-year-old daughter and one-year-old son, in Dnipro, September 2021 (Courtesy)
Mendel and Rivka Borodkin with their now three-year-old daughter and one-year-old son, in Dnipro, September 2021 (Courtesy)

An Orthodox Jewish couple from Ukraine arrived just minutes before the start of Shabbat last week after a frenzied three-day journey to get themselves, their two small children, and nine others out of Ukraine.

Chabad members Mendel (Minka) Borodkin, 27, originally from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and his Ukraine-born wife Rivka, 26, both work for a Beis Hannah, a Jewish girls’ seminary in Dnipro (formerly Dnipropetrovsk) in southeastern Ukraine.

Dnipro bridges east and west Ukraine and is just an hour and a half’s drive from Zaporizhia, whose nuclear plant was shelled by Russian forces earlier this month.

The seminary, which prepares 14- to 20-year-old girls for careers in teaching and psychology, had 15 boarders. At the beginning of March, eight went home (although one since fled to Georgia, and another is trying to get out now).

Six of the girls, plus a 25-year-old dormitory counselor, agreed to accompany the Borodkins to Israel for the duration of the war, and the parents of one of the girls asked to join them.

On the evening of Tuesday, March 1, the group embarked upon a frantic journey from Dnipro to Odesa, then onto Moldova and Romania, to make an 11:30 a.m. Bucharest-to-Tel Aviv flight on Friday, March 4.

Mendel (Minka) Borodkin (far right, holding his son) and Rivka Borodkin (far left) stop off with the girls to thank the Orot Israel girl’s seminary in Jerusalem for helping them to reach Israel, March 6, 2022. (Courtesy)

After catching the train to Odesa, and securing transportation to the Moldovan border, the 13 came up against their first hitch. The Jewish Agency was able to provide passes to the two girls with Israeli citizenship, who had left their passports behind. But the youngest girl, aged 14, had a Ukrainian identity card, but no passport. She managed to get a refugee pass that would get her into Moldova. But not into Romania or Israel.

To resolve this, the group had to go to Chișinău (formerly Kishinev) to the Israeli Embassy. There, the girl was told to wait to see the Israeli consul. The clock was ticking.

Then luck intervened, when the former Israeli ambassador to Ukraine, Joel Lion, passed Borodkin on the street on his way into the embassy. Lion is an observant Jew, and Borodkin knew him from his visits to Dnipro’s synagogue. Thanks to Lion’s familiarity with Dnipro and his conviction that despite the lack of documents, the girl was Jewish, he was able to quickly process the papers that would qualify her to immigrate to Israel.

Ukrainian cars wait in a queue close to the border crossing in Palanca, Moldova, Monday, March 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Aurel Obreja)

“The next day was Friday,” Borodkin recalled. “There were 13 places left on that El Al flight. We had to find a bus from Moldova to Romania, but there were none. Finally, one of the Kishinev rabbis told us there was a public bus in the evening.

“We boarded the bus. The driver thought there was no way we’d make the plane. That was the last thing I wanted to hear. We’d barely eaten or slept, we’d been carrying backpacks for two days and we just wanted to get to our destination.”

The bus reached the Romanian border crossing in good time, but seven coach buses — equivalent to a six-hour wait — stood between the group and Romanian territory.

“I explained our hurry to one of the guards, who didn’t understand a word I was saying,” Borodkin said. “But he read the worry on my face, made a phone call, and got us through in 45 minutes.”

The group did make it to the Bucharest airport — just an hour and a quarter before the plane took off.

They arrived in Israel at around 2 p.m. on Friday, expecting to get through Ben Gurion Airport quickly. Borodkin had been told that the border guards were expecting them and would let them through.

The girls help prepare food in Kishinev while Mendel Borodkin looks for transport, March 5, 2022. (Courtesy)

Instead, the 14-year-old and the father of one of the girls were detained for questioning, followed by two girls and the dormitory counselor, who had a Moldovan passport. Why, the border control wondered, was she claiming to be a refugee?

“They all had to go upstairs. And then something amazing happened,” Borodkin said. “The senior-most border guard looked at the counselor and asked, “Is your father Daniel, from Kishinev?”

“Yes,” she replied, “he helps the rabbi!” Borodkin said: “She never expected anyone to know who she was. I don’t know what the connection was, but he let everyone through.”

Art session organized for the girls from Dnipro in Kfar Chabad, March 5, 2022. (Courtesy)

The last lap involved getting to Kfar Chabad, near the airport, before sundown on Friday. The community sent cars to meet them.

Borodkin explained: “There are 18 minutes after candle lighting time on Shabbat eve when you can still make a flame. We made it to Kfar Chabad during those 18 minutes. My wife threw off her backpack, put down all of her electronic equipment, and lit the candles — just in time.”

The Borodkins are now in an apartment in central Jerusalem, close to the Chabad seminary where the girls are staying. The two parents that joined the group are being processed for immigration.

“So many people helped us to get here, from the Jewish Agency, rabbis,” Borodkin said. “We’re trying to keep the girls as happy as possible and so many people are helping. Most are in telephone contact with their parents. They’re with their friends. They’re young and in Israel for the first time, so they’re excited to see the sights. I haven’t seen anyone breaking down.”

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