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Reporter's notebookTech CEO: 'I'll be here until the last Jew leaves Ukraine'

With Haredi volunteers, an Israeli entrepreneur, 28, rescues Jewish refugees in Lviv

With rabbis and diplomats gone, ZAKA medics and tech businessman Guy Amar feed, shelter and transport hundreds of fleeing Ukrainians every day

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Staff from Zaka's Tel Aviv district in their tent in front of Lviv's train station, March 8, 2022 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
Staff from Zaka's Tel Aviv district in their tent in front of Lviv's train station, March 8, 2022 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

LVIV — Western Ukraine’s major city of Lviv has thus far escaped the bombardments suffered by Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, and other urban centers that the Russians are trying to pound into submission.

Still, the effects of the war can be felt across the city, as soldiers patrol the quiet streets and sandbags block the windows of government buildings. And it is nowhere more apparent that Lviv’s train station, where thousands of Ukrainians from cities and towns further east wait for long hours for a train out of the country.

Outside, a variety of Ukrainian charities and aid organizations have opened tents to provide food and medical care to the refugees fleeing the Russian invasion.

As I walked through the chaos outside the station last Tuesday, I was astounded to stumble across an Israeli flag banner stretching across a fence, and Haredi men in orange vests with Hebrew writing standing next to steaming pots and talking amicably with passersby.

The men were from the ZAKA rescue organization, a major element of Israel’s emergency response services at home and abroad.

The group of 12 Israelis in the delegation had only been informed about they’d be flying here the previous Friday, and, with Shabbat intervening, had mere hours to pack and make arrangements with their families before taking off from Israel on the Sunday morning. They landed in Hungary, and after a long drive across the border, finally made it to Lviv that night.

Staff from Zaka’s Tel Aviv district hand out tea in front of Lviv’s train station, March 8, 2022 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

I ran into them on the first day they were set up in a tent outside the train station, with a sign in Hebrew and Ukrainian announcing who they were.

“Israelis come and gather around us, we give them tea, we give them cookies,” explained Rabbi Schneur Zalman Gold from Ramat Gan. “Everyone who comes is welcomed happily. But we are trying to be focused and if it’s a Jew to whom we can offer a place to sleep, a bus to the border, or to be with us on Shabbat, we do that happily.”

Gold, whose brother runs an orphanage in Moscow, is the group’s lone Russian speaker.

As we spoke, a local Jewish man named Ephraim came up to say hello. He said he did not speak Hebrew, but had recently started studying Judaism at a local synagogue.

Minutes later, an old lady came by and kissed the Israeli flag stretched behind the tent.

“We haven’t heard anything negative,” said Moti Sheiboyd, a medic from Rehovot.

“Everyone came and expressed support, and were excited that the Israeli people were here — the police, the soldiers,” said Gold.

Passengers rush to board a train leaving to Slovakia from the Lviv railway station, in Lviv, west Ukraine, March 2, 2022. (AP/Felipe Dana)

The men from Zaka’s Tel Aviv district were sleeping at the headquarters of Israel IT, a Tel Aviv Stock Exchange-traded firm that matches tech companies with Ukrainian employees who work remotely. Israel IT’s largest office is in Lviv.

The day before, the volunteers brought a Ukrainian surrogate mother for an Israeli couple to the building they were staying in, complete with a local police escort to get them by the military checkpoints.

They also picked up a boy in a coma who was to be evacuated out of Ukraine, and ferried a group of kids with Down syndrome to Israel IT, where they slept before being sent to the Jewish community in Venice.

A Ukrainian construction worker approached the tent and took a cup of tea. “After the war, can I move to Israel to work?” he asked in Ukrainian. “After we win?”

Lviv’s unofficial rabbi

The Israel IT building is a 20-minute ride from the train station in the southeastern Pasiky-Miski neighborhood.

CEO Guy Amar, 28, who grew in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood, has been in Lviv since 2016.

“Since the beginning of the war, we have been absorbing Jews and Israelis here who come here from all around Ukraine, from the areas with fighting, with bombing,” he said as he walked up the stairs from the guarded lobby.

Guy Amar stands in the Israel IT building as refugees sit in the dining hall, March 8, 2022 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

The Foreign Ministry is directing Jews to him, said Amar, as are other organizations. “All the Chabad houses in Ukraine are sending people here.”

“Now there isn’t a head of the Jewish community, they left,” he said, referring to Rabbi Mordechai Bald and his wife Sarah, who are currently in Beitar Illit with some of their children. But Amar said he was in daily contact with the Balds as they direct Jewish refugees to him.

“I’m the unofficial consul and rabbi of Lviv,” Amar said with a laugh.

His 4,000-square-meter building, which usually houses more than 300 workers, now accepts that many refugees every day.

Some workers still come in to the office, while others have been evacuated to Poland.

Amar sends out two to four buses every day to the border. Every evening a bus heads out to Munich, Germany, where they are welcomed by the Jewish community there.

Israeli citizens and their relatives fleeing the Russian invasion await an Israeli-funded bus that will ferry them across the Polish border from Lviv city on March 2, 2022 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

He also serves three meals a day, including a kosher option shipped in from Germany or Israel. Refugees can sleep, shower, and take their kids to playrooms.

About twenty percent of the refugees at Israel IT are not Jewish, but have Jewish spouses or family members, Amar said. He directs those interested in immigrating to Israel to the Jewish Agency and Nativ, the Israeli governmental organization that maintains close ties to Jews from former Soviet Union countries.

Amar has never done anything like this in the past. “I’m a startup guy, I write code,” he said. “Like many good Jews in the world, I’m trying to help however I can. After this is over, I’ll go back to being  a mere tech guy.”

Sergei, from Kharkiv, was sitting in the building’s kitchen. He arrived at Israel IT five days before, he said in Hebrew, after spending two nights in the synagogue in Kharkiv with his family. For now, he is stuck in Ukraine.

“I tried to leave a couple of times, but they didn’t let me out,” he said. Because he is a Ukrainian male national aged between 18 and 60 years of age, he cannot leave during the country’s general mobilization.

He succeeded in sending his wife and youngest child out to Berlin, however.

Kharkiv residents Natalya, Pavlo and their daughter in Lviv’s Israel IT building, March 8, 2022 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

Natalya and Pavlo, a non-Jewish couple from Kharkiv, sat near the building’s entrance. They had arrived in Lviv the day before.

The women and children in their family are headed to Frankfurt, Germany, Pavlo said in Russian, while the men have no choice but to stay.

“We are shocked, it’s hell,” said Natalya. “The houses are getting bombed, everyone is in complete and utter shock.”

They connected with Israel IT through Jewish friends.

“We are really thankful, and we appreciate everything that has been done here,” said Pavlo.

While Amar spends his own money taking care of thousands of strangers like Pavlo and Natalya, his mother in Jerusalem is pressing him to leave, he said.

But he is determined to stay.

“I’ll be here until the last Jew leaves Ukraine, or until Russian tanks show up in Lviv.”

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