Escape from Kyiv

A dangerous getaway brought ‘designer refugees’ home to Israel

By: Chandrea Serebro

When you call your rabbi on Shabbat and he answers, I think it’s understandable if you are in shock. When you call him on Shabbat and he answers only to tell you he will pick you up in an hour, I think it’s time to worry. When you call him on Shabbat and he answers, only to tell you he will pick you up in an hour to flee your home, your country, and everything that you know, I think the presiding feeling must probably be one of panic. Especially when the country that you love is war-torn Ukraine, with Russia bearing down on you, tens of thousands of troops at the ready. This was Hannah and Uri Finkelberg’s most recent reality, and what ensued was a desperate escape, spanning five days of long, arduous driving at speeds of 160km/h on potholed side roads and five days of little or no food and only a couple of bathroom breaks, punctuated by five-star hotel stays outside of the border and kosher cuisine a la carte. But that is how journeys are, episodes of contrast and paradox, and none more so than an escape.

Hannah and Uri were still in Kyiv for some days after the first rumblings of an imminent attack had sent those who were able to flee to the borders. Not wanting to leave Hannah’s parents, who couldn’t leave because Hannah’s grandmother was immobile, suffering from severe arthritis that rendered her bedridden, the Finkelbergs were doing their best to persuade their parents to leave Kyiv when all international advisories and all sense pointed them in that direction. But when the Chief Rabbi of Kyiv, Rabbi Jonathan Markovitch – who remained in Kyiv to support and help his community who were left behind – got word from Ukrainian Special Services that the bombing of Kyiv, a city under siege, was imminent, none of them could wait any longer, no matter how much they wanted to stay together as a family. Even though men between the ages of 18 and 60 were prohibited from leaving to join the fight, Uri had made Aliyah years before, studying and living in Israel as an Israeli citizen, and this privilege gave them the freedom for this to be an actual choice for them, over many others who were forced to stay. A choice they could no longer refuse.

They packed their bags – Uri and his mother, Lina Sukernik, whose house had recently been under rocket attack, making the devastation of the situation all too real for them, packing one bag each of the bare essentials, and Hannah filling hers with their important documents and papers, throwing in her sharpest kitchen knives in the fear that they might have to travel through the nearby forests, not knowing what lay ahead there. As darkness fell, they left all that they knew, a convoy of three cars, led by an agent of Special Security, whom they referred to as ‘the angel’, on their escape. The journey ahead would see them facing hours-long traffic jams, braving travelling directly facing oncoming cars on dirt side roads in the middle of war-torn nowhere to avoid clogged up highways, facing checkpoint upon checkpoint and corruption and danger at every stop, enduring a thirty-hour non-stop drive having to keep up with speeds of 160km/h, without any real sustenance for five days.

Their escape was not a journey on which one can enjoy the scenery going by, a sense of anticipation at the destination, but rather where your eye is on the prize and your future, indeed your life, depends on it, without any real sense of what that would be. But lucky for the Fingelbergs, back in Israel, another ‘angel’ was, with the help of the entire Ra’anana community, making sure that on arrival, Uri and Hannah and Lina would not have to endure a single moment of pressure further, and that their every need would be provided for, especially as they were arriving with almost nothing, save the few items in their bags, and Hannah’s kitchen knives.

Julie Leboff and her husband Grant had been desperately searching for ways to get involved in helping in a real, hands-on way. Julie had been extremely distressed about the war and felt a dire need to do as much as she could, so when she received a call to ask her to host the Finkelbergs and Lina, Julie was all in. Nothing would be too much for them, she vowed. But before their arrival (with only a few hours warning), Erev Shabbat, late on Friday afternoon, Julie’s mind was racing. How would they feel? What condition would they be in? Would they all sit around the Friday night table, like normal? How would her own family feel? How would the Leboffs accommodate them? What more could they be doing? Having arranged everything to the last detail, everything was ready, but Julie could not foresee what the reality would be. When the Finkelbergs pulled up in the drive, they fell into Julie’s arms and she was overcome, with much sobbing, everybody thanking Hashem, hugging, and even collapsing, the house adorned with the most poignant welcome home signs decorated by the children of Ra’anana. Emotional, traumatised, physically exhausted, the Finkelbergs were overcome with gratitude at the support of an entire community – receiving clothes, food, medical help, visitors, support, and love from so many. That Shabbat day, Julie found Lina outside, sobbing, standing underneath a large citrus tree, something she have never seen before, a symbol of Israel and how those before her built this country for her and people like her to live in safety, overcome with the purest sense of relief and release from the tension of the previous days.

Everything can be taken away from you in an instant, says Julie, but so too can it also be given back to you. When you hear the word refugee, what do you see? This is not what one envisions, the stereotypical refugee synonymous with starvation, war-torn abuse. This, she says, is me and you, a moment, and the only difference is the circumstance, time, and location. They came up with the phrase ‘designer refugees’, and for Julie, it sums up everything about the situation of the Finkelbergs and thousands like them. In Ukraine, an instant and a lifetime before, Uri was a business owner, owning his own web design company and working as a professional photographer; Hannah held a senior position in a highly esteemed job in marketing. But this has now become what Hannah has begun referring to as her previous life, a forgotten world they once inhabited that was cruelly ripped away from them.

When one reflects over life, it is most often in snapshots of all the moments, good and bad, that define it. Milestone moments that make up who we are and that have determined how far we have come. When Hannah looks back over her wedding day, one of the most important days in any woman’s life, it is with such a sense of nostalgia it brings tears to her eyes. Not more than six months ago, she was a beaming bride, full of the joy of what the world holds for her and her new husband, and the family they would hopefully build together. When Hannah looks back over her wedding now, try as she might, she cannot find a single part of her that could have foreseen what was to unfold in her first year of marriage, the fabled ‘shanah rishonah’, where the bride and groom should take centre stage and concentrate largely on building their life together. Hannah remembers a conference she attended in 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic, another moment in time, where the keynote speaker was a fellow observant Jew wearing a yarmulke. She was overcome with emotion. And the keynote speaker was dynamic, energetic, knowledgeable, and successful, so much so that she photographed him and sent it to her friends, proud of her nation, her people. Imagine Hannah’s pride now, years and a lifetime later, when she finds herself in that very same Jewish keynote speaker’s home, Grant Leboff, her life saved, by Grant himself, her country, and her people.

And the joy only compounds from those first, emotionally-charged, difficult moments of freedom. Zaka, heroes in every way, went on to drive their ambulance into war-torn Ukraine to rescue Hannah’s grandmother and parents, flying them on a luxury special plane secured purely to bring them to Israel, directly to the hospital, clearing all obstacles in the way for the Finkelbergs to be reunited with their family. They have been welcomed into the Ra’anana community with open arms. The Finkelbergs have felt the generosity of the community, they have been supported and helped to start rebuilding their lives, and they want for nothing. They are committed to this new life, their ‘designer refugee’ status already giving way to their integration into the community. They are not wallowing in the pain of their loss, despite the magnitude of it and the trauma they faced escaping from it, but they are moving forward, forging a life with friends and their new ‘family’.

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