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‘It was just unbearable’: American Rabbi who stayed in Ukraine for siege flees with family as bombs near Sumy

UPDATED: Thu., March 10, 2022

In the middle of relaying the story of his family’s 32-hour escape from war-torn Ukraine on a Romanian roadside Tuesday, Rabbi Yechiel Shlomo Levitansky paused to roll down his window for a passing motorist.

“My license plate is Ukrainian,” Levitansky translated after speaking briefly with the man. “He’s asking me, ‘Is everything OK? Do you need a place to stay? Do you need food?’ ”

A journey of at least 500 miles from Sumy, a city near Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia, to Moldova and on to Romania was scheduled to end later that day with Levitansky and his wife and children taking a flight to Israel. Levitansky, who’s been living and building a Jewish congregation in Sumy for the past 17 years, said on a video call from the driver’s seat of his car that he’d not stopped to reflect completely on the decision to leave.

“I haven’t cried so much in a long time,” said Levitansky, who was born in America. “The most emotional part of it is that we left our community behind. It was a very, very difficult decision.”

Levitansky is part of the same religious movement as Chabad of Spokane County, which has established a fund to help aid Levitansky and the people of Sumy, said Rabbi Yisroel Hahn.

Levitansky described Sumy as a welcoming place for Jews prior to the invasion. Residents would ask the rabbi to bless their crops, and at Hanukkah the city lit a menorah. It makes Vladimir Putin’s justification for the invasion, that Ukraine houses Nazis, all the more perplexing.

“It’s just barbaric,” Levitansky said, noting that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and the descendant of victims of the Holocaust. “It’s scary that something like this could happen in 2022, it really is.”

The war reached Sumy, a city about half the size of Spokane and located 25 miles from the Russian border, quickly. Troops attacked the city on Feb. 24 in an offensive that had appeared unfathomable to residents before then, Levitansky said.

“It was something that was happening around us. There were troops on the border,” Levitansky said. “Nobody believed in their wildest dreams that we would get to the point where we are today.”

Initial reports indicated that Sumy had fallen to Russian soldiers because of posts on social media, which proved not to be true, Levitansky said. Still, he had messages from acquaintances asking him, “How’s it feel to be in Russia?”

Instead, a type of military siege set in, with Russian forces encircling the city, Levitansky said. Residents lived under curfew, and at night they would open their basement as a bomb shelter to those living on their block. During the day, Levitansky said he helped distribute Tehillim, the Hebrew name for the Book of Psalms, so that residents could pray for peace and safety at night.

After a week of shelling, Levitansky said, it became clear from the mayhem in other cities, such as Kyiv and Kharkiv, that his family’s safety was not assured.

“We realized that airplanes were flying over and dropping bombs on apartment buildings,” he said. “We were watching the destruction going on, and it was just unbearable. And I decided that I needed to take my wife and kids out of the country.”

Levitansky said he tried contacting drivers, but no one would help him flee the country. So the family loaded their car with just a few things and headed for the checkpoints manned by Ukrainian soldiers.

“We asked them, you know, what’s the best route to go further?” he said. “Should we go down this road, should we go down that road? And they were basically guiding us, from one checkpoint to the next checkpoint.”

The family stayed off major roads, driving for 32 hours straight. At one point, Levitansky handed the wheel to his wife when he was exhausted, but he couldn’t sleep because of the holes in the road. Eventually, they arrived in Moldova just a few hours before the observation of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.

Meanwhile, Levitansky said he remained in touch with the community back in Sumy, where on Monday an airstrike reportedly killed 21 civilians, including two children. Water and electricity providers were shelled, causing loss of services for a while. As soon as they came back on, they were bombed again.

Another man contacted him, saying he’d delayed dialysis treatment because of the fighting. Now, he needed a blood transfusion, and supplies were being preserved for the fighters. Could the rabbi help?

“I know the head doctor, I have connections with the mayor and governor,” Levitansky said. “He knows that if he calls me and I call them, there’s a chance that something can be done and they’ll change their mind.”

The cost of the procedure, which would typically be free, was $1,000. But Levitansky said he wasn’t worrying about that.

“It was worth that price to keep this person alive,” he said.

Rabbi Hahn, of Chabad of Spokane County, said the fund established by the synagogue is intended to help offset those costs, so Levitansky doesn’t have to worry or go into debt paying for, say, a medical procedure, or to find a driver who could use one of the established humanitarian corridors to get people out of the country.

“This guy is helping people on the ground,” Hahn said. “This is reliable.”

Donors can visit to make a donation, Hahn said. As of Tuesday, the fund had raised $4,000.

As Levitansky arrived at the airport in Romania, he turned the phone’s camera to the people congregating, waiting for a flight out of the country, and the Red Cross aid stands that had been set up. The weight of being a father during such conflict, not just to his congregation but his family, had not yet set in, he said.

So he turned the camera to his 6-year-old daughter, who sang the song of her faith, “I Believe and I Trust in Hashem.”

“I believe and trust in Hashem, because I understand that he’s holding my hand,” the child sang, “and every step is perfectly planned.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story included the incorrect name for a Jewish house of worship due to a reporter’s error. It has been corrected. 

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