While the world dreams and the stars twinkle, the Creator neither slumbers nor sleeps. Ten stories of midnight miracles, epiphanies, and revelations
Angels for Another Day
Rabbi Avraham Schwartz came to Atlanta as a classroom teacher, his dedication to spreading Torah and Judaism deeply impacted by his stint in Aish Hatorah. (In fact, Rabbi Schwartz was one of Aish’s first students.) Over his years in Atlanta, he became the manager of the kosher department in the community’s major grocery store, Kroger. Woven throughout all of his work was his deep desire to share his love of Torah with others. He was known by his customers for sharing a Torah thought each time they walked through the kosher department. He’d walk alongside his friends, sharing thoughts and ideas as they shopped. He was humble in all that he did, understated in his purity and commitment to a lifestyle he believed in so fully.
Yom Kippur fell on a Wednesday the year Rabbi Schwartz passed away. And it was on that day — the holiest day of the year, the day when the entire world is suspended in time, when all else seems to stop and the sanctity of life is almost tangible — that he was niftar, leaving behind his wife and two grown children. There were only two days until Shabbos, and his desire to be buried in Eretz Yisrael dictated the need to fly his body out on Motzaei Yom Kippur.
For the members of the community, Rabbi Schwartz’s friends, it didn’t matter that Yom Kippur had only just ended and that Succos was fast approaching. It didn’t matter that they were spent from a day of fasting and tefillah. It didn’t matter that the only way to accompany their friend to the Next World in the small way that they could was to wake up at three a.m. for the short levayah before the flight that would carry him to his final resting place. Of course it didn’t matter; this was Rabbi Schwartz.
The shul parking lot was dark and quiet. But when the hearse appeared in front of the shul, so did the many headlights of car after car pulled in to send off a friend with love and kavod. Like silent angels, a role they’d assumed on the Day of Atonement, the community members emerged from their cars one by one in an almost poetic display of holiness. There was no sound but that of the car doors closing and the rav delivering a short hesped. And in the silence was a message of friendship, spoken louder than words ever could, as people from Rabbi Schwartz’s 30 years in Atlanta stood at attention to show kavod hameis.
After the rav spoke, many cars accompanied the hearse in a lengthy procession from the shul to the airport. Night turned to morning, and as the cars made their way back home, Rabbi Schwartz left our city behind.
Shabbos and Yom Tov were fast approaching, and the hectic bustle of life and a flurry of preparations awaited the people of Atlanta. There was something different in our preparations that year — there was the sadness of the loss, but it was laced with the clarity of purpose that had been revealed on Yom Kippur and harvested by a community’s joint chesed shel emes in the stillness of the night.
Saved at Midnight
Agadir, Morocco, the seaside town “where the sun shines for 365 days,” if the postcards are to be believed. Tonight, Monday night, February 29, 1960, is day 366. On the Jewish calendar Rosh Chodesh Adar has just come to a close.
Nestled in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, and bordering the vast Sahara Desert to its south, Agadir is a popular tourist attraction. The scent of pines and eucalyptus wafts through the salty air, and stretches of golden sand grace its wide, crescent-shaped, South Atlantic beach.
Talborjt, the quarter housing Jews and Muslims alike, is still full of life. The little children are already fast asleep, but some local men are still sipping coffee in the local café with their friends. Their wives sit around chatting over cups of fresh mint tea and honey pastries.
Monsieur Gourgue, director of the cinema, steps out to take some fresh air while his assistant rewinds the film reel. Some Muslim teenagers are leaving the building, a little anxious about facing the music when their disapproving parents discover where they have been.
And a Jewish five-year old girl in the town hospital, suffering from mastoiditis, a serious bacterial infection of the ear, finally falls asleep, pining for her mother and family.
It’s 11:40 p.m., k’chatzos halailah.
Mr. Gourgue, the cinema manager, feels a sudden dizziness. The cinema starts to swing and sway in front of him. The ground beneath is lifted up, as if from a giant hand below. Homes, restaurants, and hotels shatter and collapse.
Red and blue lights flare through the midnight sky. From the ground emanates an enormous roar like the blast of cannons. A whole town is swallowed up.
There are just two tremors lasting no more than 14 seconds, only 5.8 on the Richter scale, but they’re deadly, because the earthquake occurs at only ten miles under the ground.
A morbid silence descends as the town is plunged into thick darkness and clouds of dust. But the silence doesn’t last long. Anguished cries can be heard from all directions from those trapped under the rubble. Some survivors crawl out of the wrecked buildings looking for their loved ones, but the ruins make the streets unrecognizable.
The hospital is in great upheaval. Miraculously, the building still stands upright, but one of the Muslim male nurses insists the hospital must be evacuated. The medical team sets about evacuating the 400 patients, and 20 minutes later, the whole structure disintegrates, with not one casualty.
The bewildered little girl whose whole world collapsed in those 14 seconds remembers almost nothing. The trauma of her losses has robbed her of her memories, of her past. Her sole recall is from after the earthquake… sitting in a refugee tent in a circle passing a bowl of rice and a spoon to other child survivors.
The infection that landed her in the hospital saved her life. But she would never see most of her family again.
Her father had his own miracle. Buried up to his neck, he called out to a passerby to come and rescue him. The man, fearful of another tremor, refused, but relented when her father bribed him with his gold ring.
Left all alone and ill, the girl was transferred to a hospital in Casablanca. Later, her maternal grandparents took her in for about two years until her father, remarried by then, came to claim her. It took her many years to realize the many miracles of her survival.
She’d lost her mother and five siblings, her paternal grandparents, and about 30 other members of her extended family.
The Malach HaMaves went about seemingly haphazardly that night, destroying one side of a street and not the other… killing one child sharing a bed with a surviving brother… snatching out-of-town visitors who came to be menachem avelim, a mohel from Mogador, other people who shouldn’t have been there.
Agadir rebuilt itself, and we survivors have tried to do the same, some more successfully than others. The heartache dulls but never goes away.
On one of my trips back to Agadir, as we crossed the desolate earthquake site, I spotted something that broke my heart but also gave me hope: two steps of a long-gone home leading nowhere.
I promised myself, that with Hashem’s help, those steps would be the stepping stones of a new life.
In His Final Moments
was January ’21 when London fought the second wave of the Covid pandemic. Sadly, my father, Rav Yeshia Mordche Diamant — a popular and beloved rebbi — caught the virus and was hospitalized. Within a short time, he was placed on a C-PAP machine to help him breathe, but eventually, his lungs began failing, and he was intubated.
It was extremely challenging and frustrating, as hospital visits weren’t allowed, and the doctors, overstretched from the crowds of patients in the hospital wards, only updated us on his condition once every 50 hours.
Feeling hopeless, my family reached out to gedolim worldwide to daven on our behalf. The community stormed the gates of Heaven, tzedakah was promised, kabbalos were taken on, and telephone conferences were set up to daven for a miracle.
But to no avail. The doctors informed us that he wasn’t responding to any treatments, and they were afraid he wouldn’t survive.
During this tumultuous time, my mother lost her elderly father, but due to my father’s dire condition, she didn’t join her family at the shivah in New York. She sat shivah alone, mourning the loss of her father whilst simultaneously praying that her husband would make a full recovery.
Unfortunately, the situation worsened, and the doctors called to notify us that my father’s hours were numbered. The hospital allowed my mother to come down with only one of my brothers for what they called an end-of-life visit. Hysterically, they tried explaining the importance of having a minyan at his bedside, but due to Covid restrictions, their request was denied.
My family felt desperate to do something that would change the decree in Shamayim, for as Chazal tell us in Maseches Berachos, “As long as there’s life, there’s hope.” It was 10:30 at night when my brother from Eretz Yisrael called. With hope in his voice, he shared a suggestion which had come to his mind. He said that at my grandfather’s shivah in New York, the Skulener Rebbe came to be menachem avel, and my uncles were mazkir for a refuah for my father (their brother-in-law).
The Rebbe answered that my father’s name, Yehoshua Mordechai ben Mattel, is roshei teivos for the word bamayim. This sparked his idea that our family donate money toward a mikveh that was in its planning stages at the shul in Beit Shemesh where three of my siblings daven.
Within moments, my family members, who were gathered around the table reciting Tehillim, took upon themselves to donate a large sum as a zechus for a refuah sheleimah.
It was an emotional moment.
Then, spontaneously, all the men rose, formed a circle, and burst into song and dance. They began with “Omar Rabi Akiva, ‘Ashreichem, Yisrael, lifnei Mi atem metaharin?’ ” The air was electric. They continued onto any song connected to water and hope.
Only a Yid could find the inner strength at such a critical time — when we were denied the opportunity to surround my father’s bedside — to connect to Hashem with such an intense level of emunah and bitachon. We felt so unified and bound by love and strength as the men moved onto singing songs such as “Tov Lehodos” and “Chasdei Hashem,” which expressed their belief that a miracle would yet unfold.
Moments later, at 12:01, my phone rang. I saw “private caller” displayed on the screen. With trepidation, I handed the phone to my husband. It was the hospital, and they informed him that my father had just passed away.
The donation we’d pledged earlier as a refuah sheleimah was now l’illui nishmaso.
In the silent stillness of night, when the world was dark with Covid, with social distancing and restrictions in place, we may have physically been apart and unable to be at his side, but spiritually we were connected to my father’s neshamah in his final moments. Indeed, our family had given my father the most purifying and beautiful taharah.
As I write these lines, the mikveh is coming to its completion and will be opened this week im yirtzeh Hashem. May my father, Rav Yehoshua Mordechai ben Rav Tzvi HaKohein be a meilitz yosher for all his family and for the thousands of talmidim and tinokos shel beis rabban whom he taught and inspired over so many years, instilling in them an everlasting love for Torah. Yehi zichro baruch.
A Cold February Night
wasn’t exactly midnight, but not far from it, when the call came.
“Is that Mr. Brooks?”
“Yes, what’s wrong?” When an insistent ringing wakes you up in the middle of the night and your wife has been in the hospital for three months, you’re sure something isn’t right. I slipped carefully out of bed so as not to disturb my three-year-old daughter sleeping soundly beside me.
“This is the hospital speaking. Your wife has gone into labor and we’re planning to deliver her shortly.”
I gasped. That was the last thing I wanted to hear. “But it’s too early,” I gasped. “Can’t you stop it?”
“Afraid not, can you get here as soon as possible?”
“I’m on my way.”
Giving birth at 30 weeks in 1976 was dangerous enough for the premature infants, but my wife was about to deliver the third set of quintuplets ever born in the UK. Just a few days earlier I’d sat with her doctors and had been faced with an awful scenario. I was told that for the babies to have a chance of survival, the pregnancy needed to continue for at least another month.
“What if one of the tiny babies shows signs of distress?” the doctors threw at me, oh so casually, “should we sacrifice the others and deliver that one or risk the lives of all of them?”
I was too shocked to answer. Was I expected to play Russian Roulette with my unborn children? Now, as my father-in-law drove me through the dark deserted streets on the short journey to University College Hospital, London, the concerns of the doctors became only too clear. “It’s too early, it’s too early,” was all that I kept repeating.
I arrived in dismal blackness and stood outside the bolted wooden doors of the maternity suite. After much desperate hammering, a night porter, in almost Dickensian fashion, swung them open. I rushed up the stairs of the deserted hospital and came face to face with my wife’s obstetrician. The benign look on his face seemed to suggest resignation to the inevitable. My heart sank.
After just a few snatched words with my wife, she was wheeled into the operating room. I was left standing helpless and alone in the corridor of a silent hospital on a cold, dark February night. I rested my head against the wall, trying not to think about what was happening on the other side of the wall.
Suddenly the silence was broken by footsteps. Running footsteps. The door leading to the operating suite burst open, and a doctor in scrubs emerged at full speed holding something in a white towel.
“Get me a breathing tube,” he screamed as he ran down the stairs in the direction of the neonatal ICU. Silence once again.
I stood in shock. This was one of my babies. I waited with trepidation and increasing concern. No more babies appeared. Was that one the weakest of the five? Or, G-d forbid, was he the only one? I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t yet versed in Tehillim or even in the right prayers to say. But I knew I had to appeal to the only One Who could help them. So I stood and said Krias Shema. Krias Shema for the lives of my children, and, if necessary, Krias Shema for their souls.
I became a great deal calmer. Even as the silence continued, I began to reason. You have to give something back, I thought. Maybe donate an incubator to the neonatal unit.
After what seemed like an eternity, a neonatal pediatrician poked his head around the door and said the words that would change our lives forever. “We think they’re all going to be okay.” For the first time since I’d arrived, I looked out of the window. Dawn was breaking.
At the time I didn’t understand the Laws of Vows and Promises, but my thoughts didn’t go unnoticed. It took 14 years, a dramatic change of lifestyle and a move to the holiest city in the world until my ability to “give back” became a reality. For more than 30 years I’ve been able to assist couples having difficulties in creating a family.
The quintuplets? They’re all married with children of their own, three are even grandparents already, and one is a rosh yeshivah. Plenty of nachas from them and our other children, but on cold nights in February I still remember the wake up call I received so many years ago.
were fresh and starry-eyed, married for 48 hours, the epicenter, or rather, the only thing, in our little universe, oblivious to technicalities (like time) that might concern regular people.
We’d stayed in a hotel in another city for the first two nights of our marriage, so it was with great excitement that we settled into what would be our long-term home in Lakewood. The apartment was still pretty bare, and we didn’t have much luggage, so I puttered aimlessly around after sheva brachos, unpacking the few possessions we had with us.
“Hey,” I remarked to my husband, as I admired our beautifully designed kesubah. “It’s so interesting that Mr. X would spell his name like that.”
“Like what?” my husband wanted to know.
“With a gimmel instead of a zayin. It’s not pronounced like that, so it’s funny that he spells it that way.”
“He doesn’t,” my husband responded grimly.
A quick phone call to a rav, and my husband’s suspicions were confirmed. The kesubah wasn’t valid and we needed a new one, asap. Come right over, my husband was told. Never mind the late hour. Bring some eidim with you. Oh, and leave the door unlocked while you’re home with your kallah to avoid any yichud problems.
Having just been transformed from a bochur himself, my newly minted husband knew where to find some. He quickly corralled a willing friend or two, and left with our kesubah in tow.
He returned a half hour later, the beautiful kesubah I’d been handed under the chuppah now sporting a cut through most of it to render it invalid, and a new, valid kesubah on a small photocopied piece of paper, the signatures of two single friends now in place of the original eidim to our wedding.
Funny and entertaining? Check. Glamorous and romantic? Not. But this unexpected foray into real life and adulthood served as a comic trial run for us. Although we’re no longer classifiable as a young couple, we are halachically married, happily until 120, im yirtzeh Hashem!
was the year of Y2K. You know, when we left the 20th century and entered the new millennium. The year 2000, when the whole world was going to come to a screeching halt at midnight, because of the way computers would read the new year as 1900, sending us 100 years backward. The electric grid was going to go, the water supply would be affected. Elevators were going to stop mid-ascent, hospitals would lose lifesaving equipment, overall war and chaos were going to descend on the world. People were storing batteries and food. They were filling up their bathtubs in preparation for this world-ending event.
On the outside, I took a more cynical view. Come on. Nothing’s going to happen, people are going nuts over nothing. Yet I couldn’t completely dispel the thought, But maybe….
December 31, 1999, was on Friday. I was at my brother’s house for Shabbos. Everyone had gone to bed hours before, but I was up in the quiet of the living room deeply engrossed in some book, Y2K the farthest thing from my mind.
I don’t remember what happened first. Did I hear the fireworks, or did I glance at the clock? Either way, I suddenly realized it was midnight.
And just like that, all the lights went out.
I froze. The whole house had been plunged into complete darkness. My first thought was, I don’t believe it, it’s really happening, and oh, my goodness, I’m all alone! Do I wake up my brother? My heart was pounding, panic rising in my throat as I pondered my options. It must have been less than a minute, but it felt like an eternity, until my head began to clear and logic kicked in.
Wait a second… the fridge is still humming. I looked out the window and saw that other houses still had light. And slowly it dawned on me… the Shabbos timer! It was set to turn all the lights out at midnight! Oh, but of course. (Good thing I hadn’t woken the whole family!)
It’s been many years since that moment — 23 to be exact. But we live in tumultuous times, and in the years since Y2K, there have been many alarming events. Many times, I’ve been sure that “this is it” (whatever “it” is). The media, as well, never miss an opportunity to warn us of the imminent end of America, democracy, the world, the sky, whatever.
Sometimes, when I’m frightened for the future, I remember those moments in the pitch-black darkness of my brother’s house. The moment when, precisely at midnight, when the pundits had it that the world would fall apart, Hashem whispered gently in my ear, “Don’t worry My child, I’ve got this.”
Every Single Star
The sky above me is painted a dark, velvety blue.
Most of humanity is asleep, but I’m strolling outside the dorms of my yeshivah, a thin hoodie pulled over my pajamas, shivering on this chilly April night.
My yeshivah is in a little hamlet with hilly streets on a mountain overlooking a river. Tonight, I’m the only one walking the deserted streets. Aside from my footsteps, the only sound I hear is the soft lapping of the waves hitting the beach down by the riverside.
Why am I so restless? Why can’t I sleep? Nothing is wrong, but nothing’s right either. I’m almost in beis midrash, yet I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything significant. My years in yeshivah are simply passing by.
I haven’t developed a passion for learning, so every day gets harder and harder. I spend most of my day engaged in something that doesn’t leave me gratified. Socially, I’m managing — I have buddies. But during the past three years, I haven’t built real friendships. My parents are 100 miles away in another city; there’s no one here who can intuit my needs, who can see through my forced smile, who can read me.
Did I make a mistake by coming here?
Everyone else seems to be leading their life with ease. Why am I the only one struggling like this? Am I doing something wrong? Is something wrong with me?
Where is that elusive rebbi who’s supposed to be guiding me through my struggles? If only I had someone to talk to, maybe I could navigate this difficult transition into adulthood on the right path, with the right hashkafos.
I feel helpless. Alone.
I keep pacing, pacing, my feet moving me farther away from the yeshivah dorms. Suddenly, I stop — to collect my thoughts, to calm myself down, but most importantly, to take stock of where I am. In the darkness, I can make out the familiar streets of my town. I gaze around me, inhaling the cold night air.
Then I glance up.
In the cloudless sky above me, there’s a sea of stars, twinkling like embroidered sequins set upon a background of the finest silken tapestry. I can’t pull my eyes away from all those stars, glimmering in their midnight glory, revealing His breathtaking grandeur.
Standing there, I marvel at each star giving off its own sparkle, shining its light from millions of miles away, clear testimony to the One and Only, the Creator of the vast galaxies and our marvelous universe.
A pasuk pops into my mind, one that describes how Hashem has a name for every single individual star, and He takes count of each one.
That’s when it hits me: I may be struggling. I may feel lonely and helpless. But I’m a son to the same Creator who is concerned with each star in the universe.
I feel a flood of confidence: Hashem will certainly help me through this difficult time. He will guide me, build me, nurture me, and help me accomplish my best. He will always be there for me; He is with me right now.
My shoulders relax. My breathing slows. I’m comforted.
I walk quickly back to the dorm, ready for sleep.
Dawn will bring another day of hope and opportunities. Tomorrow’s blue sky will take the place of the starry midnight I’m seeing now, but I have internalized its lesson.
When I daven Shacharis in the morning, I’ll pour out my heart to my Father in heaven, begging him to guide me and assist me on the path to spiritual greatness. He knows my name and is counting on my success.
Hope for Tomorrow
was 12:47 a.m. when I finally let go and cried. Under the darkness of night, while the world slept, I lay awake, heaving heavy sobs. Those tears were a while in the making. I was afraid to let them come, afraid that if I’d give in to the tears, it would be all over, I’d be all over, and there would be nothing left.
Life in the shadow of an abusive childhood was tough. But after an intense therapy process, I took the bold move toward marriage. Baruch Hashem, I found the most amazing husband who saw beyond my broken childhood, recognizing my worth. I couldn’t wait to build my own home, to make up for all I’d never had.
I’d done so much inner work to be able to mother in the way mine could not. And I couldn’t wait to have my own daughters, to be a healthy mother to them. I was more than ready.
I waited one year, and then another, and then another — long, painful years of ups and downs, tests and attempts. One treatment option after another yielded no success. The moments, minutes, hours, and days were a terrifying, relentless loop, until we received a prognosis and stopped short. Most likely, they said, I would never be a mother.
My dreams were shattered. I didn’t have a past, I didn’t have a future, and my present was cloaked in darkness. I saw no hope. I didn’t know how I would move on. I was choking on the pain.
I couldn’t let it out though. I was so afraid that if I’d give into the enveloping sadness, I’d have no way of ever getting out. I was so afraid of the deep, black hole surrounding me. I thought that if I’d start crying, I’d never be able to stop. If I’d give the grief a voice, I’d never stop screaming. So I held on even tighter.
I smiled and pretended and went on with life as if all was okay. As if I’d never sat in that doctor’s office hearing him rattle off percentages, with my baby being the X in the algebra equation. With X being a fraction of a number. Day by day, I pretended to be okay, while breaking inside. But denial only goes so far; each smile was another crack in my broken heart.
I knew I needed to cry. I knew the only way out was through. I knew that without sadness there can be no happiness either. I knew all of it, yet I couldn’t do it.
Until one day there was a breakthrough in Japan, and I felt a flutter of hope. Science is evolving, hopefully there will be many more breakthroughs, and then I may be a mother. I may be a mother! Something gave way. I allowed myself to hope for tomorrow, to dream of a future.
That night, under the cloak of darkness, while the world slept, I lay awake. Summoning great inner strength, I gave in, I gave up, and I cried. Really cried.
I cried for the loss of my dreams, for the lonely days, for the need to nurture, for the emptiness, the fears, the devastation, the emotional toll, and for all the hurt of the days I didn’t cry. I cried for the uncertainty, for the hope that wasn’t a promise, for the light that may be extinguished yet again, for how dark darkness can be. I cried, letting it all out. Then I slept better than I had in months.
In the following days, I continued crying. I smiled less, stopped pretending, hid more, and cried again. After a while, I noticed a shift. My back ached less, my shoulders straightened, and I smiled more between the sobs. The sun was starting to peek through those thunderclouds. Nothing had changed, yet something did.
I’m still not a mother. Yet today the dream is closer than it’s ever been. Today I can smile and I can cry, and I’m so grateful that I can laugh by day and find solace in my tears at night.
wanted a sign.
I felt that I needed one; I craved one — though, on some level, I realize how silly I was.
If Hashem loves me, and everything He does, or ever will do, is for the very best, and if I truly, profoundly, acknowledge that no matter how much we contrive and connive, He, and always He will only ever be the true ringmaster running the show, then why would I ever need assurances?
But, still, I asked for a sign.
Please, Hashem, how else will we know this is the one?
Our eldest son was in shidduchim.
He’d barely gone out with one other girl before this… this… unknown American meideleh (British-Israeli hybrid that I am, I can barely locate New York on a map), has gone and captivated his heart in under a week.
It was too fast. Too foreign. Too frightening.
My maternal instincts kicked into overdrive. All I could think of was damage control.
Hence my need for a sign. Let our Third partner reveal His hand and tell me, please: Are we in for a dream or a disaster?
Looking back, I blush at my childishness — but yes, I behaved like a kvetchy kid. I shook my hands. I asked, I begged, and begged some more.
I need a sign.
But life creaked on in all its awful humdrumness, and by Friday I began to realize that sign or no sign, my dear, beloved, apple-of-my-eye bochur — the kid who has never said a bad word to my face, who manages to sound almost playful when he’s angry, who is friends with the world, and to whom life is for real — is, actually, no longer a kid.
This Motzaei Shabbos, he says, he’ll be taking her to the Kosel.
We all know what that means. (I believe it’s called “popping the question,” though at that point, there was little question of where this was heading.)
I have no recollection of that Shabbos. It must have passed in a blur.
But the hours after Havdalah.…
Were they hours?
More like days.
I don’t recall whether I davened Maariv that evening or not.
I was probably too worked up to focus. But I remember asking — repeatedly — for a sign.
The petrified child within me wouldn’t let it go.
The call comes through at 12:15 a.m.
“Mazel tov — we’re engaged!”
I’m a mess.
Torn between elation and hypertension.
All the “what ifs?!” that have ever been created, and plenty more that have never been imagined, rise to torment me (the blessing and curse of a writer’s mind).
What if we’ve just entrusted our dearest, most precious, phenomenally sweet young son to a deranged, disgruntled, vicious young woman who just hasn’t had the chance to show her true colors… yet…!???
“Let’s go!” I say to my better half.
“Please… let’s take the car and go for a drive! I need air….”
It’s after one a.m. But I feel like a goldfish. Swimming around in circles.Struggling to make sense of the world.
My husband takes one look at me, and too delighted to protest, goes along with my madness. (I feel a little deranged myself, come to think of it, and, hey, who can sleep after such news anyway?)
As we pass through the lobby of our building, I see something poking out of every mailbox on the wall.
It’s Motzaei Shabbos. Mailboxes are usually emptied on Friday. The mailman won’t arrive till early Sunday. But there they are. Little booklets all in a row. Shiny blue, crisp, and tempting. I’m drawn, like a magnet, to our mailbox.
I pull out the booklet. The cover is bare.
Nothing but two huge words splashed over the front in bright, happy red: “Itchem b’semachot — I’m with you in your simchah.”
It’s a wedding directory — the likes of which I’ve never seen before.
And boy, does it come in handy.
As told to Riki Goldstein by Rabbi Yechiel Shlomo Levitansky
rom the first day of the war, our city of Sumy, in northeastern Ukraine, was under siege. Exiting or entering was practically impossible, and we spent all day with a team of volunteers buying and delivering food, medicine, and other necessities to our community.
At night, after curfew, we fielded Zoom calls with communities across the world, to the background noise of gunshots and shelling, sometimes very close to our house. Night after night the Russian tanks tried to enter the city and were fended off by local citizens who risked their lives with the little ammunition they had.
Even as shluchim and whole communities throughout Ukraine headed out to the European border, we could not entertain the thought of leaving. We knew people had tried to leave the city and got shot at by the Russian soldiers. More importantly, our presence in the city gave tremendous chizuk to our community and even to our non-Jewish neighbors.
But one week after war broke out, as the supermarket and pharmacy shelves emptied, and no supply trucks could enter to refill them, we knew the sand in the hourglass was running low. To leave the city limits with trigger-happy Russian battalions just miles away, though, we needed to contact the police at 5:00am to get special permission. It would come along with a permit to buy enough gas to drive across Ukraine, and a map with a route that would (hopefully!) allow us to avoid bumping into the Russian army.
We finished the last Zoom at 3:00am and then had to decide if we should leave. Our twelve-year-old son made a mini hafgana, marching around the dining room table in protest that we would even consider leaving the community behind. But we weren’t sure: Should we stay, simply to comfort our community with our presence, or should we flee to arrange humanitarian aid from outside?
Our answer came from the Igros Kodesh. In one of his letters, the Rebbe describes the Frierdiker Rebbe’s decision to leave his chassidim and escape the Communists; he could help them more from outside the USSR. With this directive, it was clear we needed to go.
Still, we would be leaving against police recommendations, and no one from our community would drive us or come along. As it happens, we had lived in Sumy for seventeen years without owning a car and had only decided to buy one in the summer of 2021. With incredible hashgacha pratis, our car was delivered to us mere weeks before the outbreak of war, and now we had independent transport.
was 4:00am. We had one hour to pack for our trip. We started looking around the house for what to take. Our documents, dollars and Kuntraisim we received from the Rebbe. Some clothing, jewelry. My wife’s kesuba. We made some food, and the kids grabbed the Mishloach Manos packages they’d prepared for their online school friends who live in other countries. I saw my wife looking at her leichter, but I knew it was too bulky. “It’s just money,” I told her. “Hashem will give us new leichter.”
Out on the open road, it was clear why no one had wanted to take us and why we were the only travelers in sight. The countryside had turned sinister. We saw burned-out Russian tanks at the side of the churned-up roads. The highway was littered with pieces of metal. As we got closer to where we had been warned to get off the main road, the burned tanks were still steaming, and their contents were still strewn all over the ground. It was painful to think that the occupants of these tanks had mothers, wives, and children waiting for them to come home.
As we drove, we continued to thank Hashem for everything we had. In spite of the surrounding scenery, we felt calm and assured, knowing that thousands of Yidden around the world were davening for our safety. We felt as if we were being guided and protected by the Aananei Hakovod.
Once we left the highway, we stopped for some fresh air. Ukrainian soldiers approached us with their guns drawn. “Get back in the car and keep on moving!” They must have been waiting for something over there, and we were in the way. We quickly got out of there. After five hours of driving, we came to Haditch, where we stopped to daven at the Ohel of the Baal Hatanya. Then with renewed bitachon, we continued on our way.
Our trip lasted from 6am Thursday until 10am on Friday, when we finally hit the Moldovan border. We hit roadblocks every ten minutes throughout Ukraine. In the pitch blackness of night on unlit roads, how could you know which soldiers were manning them? Once they opened their mouths, we could hear Ukrainian, and sometimes a flag adorned the blockade. Each time, they warned us to keep driving. If we’d stop, we’d become a target for snipers. So we continued driving. Through the night, through the war zone, onward, onward.
My wife took the wheel for a few hours, but sleep was barely possible because the roads were full of potholes ripped up by tanks and trucks. We stopped only to refill our tank from the jerry cans of gas we’d bought in Sumy. I have no idea how we made it; only miracles could have protected our tires from the wreckage on the roads and ensured our safety as we drove after a week of no sleep with our eyes half-shut from fatigue.
The next morning, as we crossed the border into Moldova, we saw hundreds of local people standing with signs offering free food, clothing, sim cards and apartments for strangers coming from Ukraine.
From Kishinev, we continued on to Romania, Israel, and Poland as we worked on getting trucks of supplies to besieged Sumy. Then, once there was a safe corridor through which our people could travel to safety, we arranged buses to get them out of Ukraine.
Months later, our family moved back to the city. It’s a shelichus we cannot abandon, even in the fearful night of war.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 838)
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