Refugees become rescuers
From the creation of an “Ambubus” to portable medical equipment, Rabbi and Rabbanit Halfon race against time to save lives in the Ukraine
It was just over a year ago that the Ukraine burst into our news consciousness, with reports of bombings, refugees, blackouts, freezing cold, water stoppages, destroyed buildings, and devastation. Surprisingly to some of us, this is still an ongoing news item, but for others, even people who live outside of the Ukraine and Russia, it has been their reality. Not a day or even an hour goes by that these tragedies are not part of their lives.
Let’s consider, for example, the Halfon family – formerly of Israel, later of Kharkov, and who now split their time between Israel and Kishinev, Romania. For a few harrowing and life-changing days a year ago, they themselves were Ukrainian refugees, running from their home in Kharkov, to Moldova, then to Romania – miraculously and just barely evading the loss of their 18-year-old son to the Ukrainian army draft. Within hours after this closest of heart-rending escapes, Rabbi Yitzchak and his wife the Rabbanit Hodayah said to each other: “We’re no longer refugees, but look at all those people who still are! We can’t just close our eyes to them.”
Ever since then, including the very hour at which this interview was conducted, they have been collecting names of Jews left behind, arranging buses for them, flying to deal with their medical emergencies, arranging Shabbat meals, arranging emergency evacuations and saving their lives – taking care of the refugees in every which way.
And thus was born what became the Kanfei Emunah organization – a family operation to which refugees flock so that buses, ambulances, food, documentation, aid in Israel, and even Jewish spirituality can be provided for them. The name “Hodayah” became a code name for those seeking help, often feeling that she was their last and only hope.
We spoke with Hodayah Halfon, who was barely able to take time off from receiving, answering, and acting on constantly-streaming Whatsapp messages to talk with us.
Q. How did it all start?
Hodayah [after briefly reviewing and reliving the above-described first days of their escape:] “We arrived in Romania on Friday, totally exhausted physically and emotionally. Still, my husband said right away that we have to help Jews leave just as we did – and to persuade them that it was important to leave! We left right before the war started, because we were sure – unlike our neighbors – that we had no choice and that the war was going to be terrible. Even after the first bombings, there were still many who didn’t realize or accept what was in store for them…
“In our little hotel room in Romania, we met others who had escaped, and many of them were crying and scared; they had left family members behind, especially men of army age whom the Ukrainian army wished to draft… We heard specifically about Kharkov, where we had lived, and realized that it was even worse than we had feared. After Shabbat, we tried to find out, via Whatsapp, if we could arrange buses, and we spoke to lots of people – but we soon realized that no one there really knew what to do! There was lots of good will, but no real rescues going on – no one was willing to provide buses, drivers were afraid to go there, etc. Names were already streaming into our Whatsapp and other groups that we formed for the purpose, but nothing was actually happening – so we realized that we would have to do it ourselves. We turned to MKs in Israel, to the Red Cross, others – nothing worked, but we kept working with our lists of names and locations, trying to find ways to get them out.
“We heard how terrible it was in our former hometown: No gas for cars, no buses or subways; a taxi cost a third of a monthly salary for a short trip! We encouraged people to actually walk through the subway tunnels [to avoid bombings] which were crowded with people trying to flee, to get to a real train. It was total chaos.
“On our second Shabbat in Romania, I couldn’t sleep at night, dreaming about what was going on there, and all the Jews there and where they were congregating. The next day came the turnabout: We were able to get three buses to Kharkov – money to pay for them, as well as drivers who agreed to drive them! Of course it was very wild and disorganized, but with the help of volunteers who remained in Kharkov, the three buses left for the unknown – with the first stop at the Moldovan border, several hours to the south.
“And since then, we have been able to arrange three buses every day. Of course it dwindled over time, but still now, there are two buses every week taking out refugees, escaping the continued bombings and electricity-blackouts and water-stoppages. This, in addition to ambulances that we arrange from afar when needed.”
Q. What are the main issues now?
Hodayah: “Most of what we are facing now are medical problems. Throughout this time, many people couldn’t leave because they, or their family members, had situations that simply didn’t allow them to travel. We did some successful rescues via ambulance, but this became much too expensive, and we simply didn’t have the means. It caused me such sorrow to think about the people who couldn’t get out because there were no ambulances… On the other hand, my husband then thought of an ‘ambu-bus’ – buses that we arranged to have outfitted specially with beds instead of seats, as well as medical equipment and a doctor; this truly saved a bunch of people.”
For Hodayah and her husband, and their unmarried children living with them at home, this has truly been a 24-hour-a-day, all-encompassing job. Rabbi Yitzchak, often accompanied by his wife and/or son and/or other children, has made many trips over the course of the year to Kishinev, Romania, where most of “their” refugees are housed. Many of the non-Jews then find their way to Europe, but most of the Jews wish to continue on to Israel. For this purpose, another entire set of “helping aids” is required: Logistics, finding people to adopt and connect with them in Israel, and spirituality, i.e., helping them to understand for the first time what Shabbat is, as well as many other facets of Judaism.
Q. For you personally, what is the most significant or important part of this entire operation that you have taken on?
Hodayah: “First of the, the chance to simply save people from the catastrophe of what is going on in the Ukraine. Many of them are in very serious physical condition, and very weak and sick. There is a great Kiddush Hashem [sanctification of G-d’s name] in helping people this way, both Jewish and non-Jewish. And then we continue to help the Jews as they continue on to Israel, including with many connections we have made both in the fundraising aspects and in the absorption aspects in Israel. Among these I have to mention the OU (Orthodox Union) and Chabad groups; we are a Chabad family. For me, to help Jews in this way is simply the greatest joy there is.”
Q. How is the work actually accomplished?
Hodayah: “Our activities are three-fold, and each has its own challenges that we have arranged to solve. First is the actual rescue, involving finding the people – or having them find us, which they seem to do; I never dreamt that our names would be so famous all over the Ukraine! – and arranging the buses, or ambulances, or ambu-buses, to take them out of the war-torn country.
“Second is greeting the Jews in Kishinev, which involves both technical things such as medicines, helping with documentation, and just getting set, and also spiritual aspects such as giving them a beautiful and meaningful Shabbat experience as they prepare to make Aliyah to Israel. This includes Shabbat meals with singing, Kiddush, and the like, and then afterwards tefillin and other mitzvot. They know that they are between two worlds, and their hearts are open to a connection with Jews and Judaism and what will soon be their new home, Israel. They appreciate having people care about them and talk to them; everything they knew has been left behind.
“And the third part is helping them acclimate in Israel. But I have to say again that the most urgent need is arranging special rescues for those who are ill, and arranging better medical care in Kishinev as well. Here in Israel too, it is very important to engage in kiruv, bringing them close both sociologically and religiously, so that they will not get swallowed up as ‘poor new immigrants’ who barely speak the language and have no means, etc.”
Q. You must have hundreds of stories. Can you tell us one that made the greatest impression upon you?
Hodayah: “I can tell you in brief of a woman who was in touch with us for a very long time to try to save her aunt and have her come to Israel – but even with her truly heroic acts which I will have to explain another time, the aunt unfortunately died even before she could reach Israel; but the niece decided that she would come to Israel in her place… But more recently we had a story of an older couple, Holocaust survivors in their 80’s, from the southern Ukrainian port city of Kherson. The husband had Parkinson’s, which got worse when the war started and because of the lack of food and medicines, and he could no longer walk. This was a city that was taken over by the Russians, and then re-liberated by the Ukrainians, and that’s when their troubles really started: The Russians started bombing all the infrastructures, this time even more accurately then before, and once again there was no electricity, water, food and medicines, and the husband’s condition really began to deteriorate.
“As soon as we received a call to try to get them out, Yitzchak and my son flew to Kishinev, to where this couple was taken, so that they could greet them there. They were very shocked to see how bad his medical and sanitary condition was, and they arranged for an ambulance, and for everything else that was needed, including medicines, heat, and more. After a week, we were also able to rescue this couple’s son and his wife, but meanwhile Yitzchak was helping this man with everything as if he was his father, getting him whatever he needed – he even got him to eat and drink for the first time in a long time.
“Meanwhile this man’s family in Israel really wanted to see him, but it was impossible to fly him without a special bed; he couldn’t even get into a sitting position. Yitzchak worked with him to get him to somehow sit a little so that he could fly – and then by miracle a flight was suddenly scheduled with special beds. But then came the next crisis: the aircraft people didn’t want to take him, given his condition. My husband really fought with everyone in order to get them to take him so that he shouldn’t miss this one-chance flight… And finally, thank G-d, after all these efforts, he succeeded, and Yitzchak flew with him on the flight, and he got him an ambulance on both sides of the flight and went with him to the hospital where he could finally get the life-saving care that he needed. This was a case that was truly seared into our hearts…”
Yitzchak himself told of another couple, apparently the last ones left in their bombed-out building in Dnipro: “The cold was biting, the windows were all shattered, and the woman was in serious condition, unable to get out of bed, while her husband was blind, almost dysfunctional; medicine, food, and water had not been available for days. The ambulance we fought so hard to procure was waiting for them downstairs, and we had to evacuate quickly. Finally, with the help of some volunteers, we were able to get the heavy woman onto the stretcher and down the many stairs to the street. The ambulance made its way through the bombed-out roads to the hospital – but not soon enough for the wife, who sadly passed away shortly after arrival. Her husband’s condition began improving, however. Within just two days, we heard that their building had been bombed yet again and that its entire central section had burnt down completely. We realized with amazement and gratitude that thanks to our rescue, his life was saved, and his wife received a proper burial.”
Interestingly, Rabbi Yitzchak had earlier told a similar story – apparently there are very many! – about a couple from Kherson whose planned escapes were thwarted time after time, despite the work that he had put in. Finally, after weeks of efforts by the Halfons, a flight to Kishinev was arranged – and as they finished celebrating their escape to freedom, they were informed that their building had been razed by bombs.
Realizing that without resources, they could not continue their truly life-saving work, the Halfons formed the Kanfei Emunah (Wings of Faith) association. They have been in cooperative contact with entities such as the Jewish Agency, the Israeli Consulates in Kishinev and Warsaw, ZAKA, Vaad Hatzalah, and many more but now resources are running out. They urgently need funds for Evacuation buses and fuel for these emergency operations before Passover.
To contact the Halfons or to help in other ways, please send them a Whatsapp message at +972537130135 or click here to help their crucial efforts