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Shabbos In The Airport In Kiev
By Menachem Ziegelbaum

The Boeing 767 of Uzbekistan Airways raced down the runway and then lifted into the sky. Flight 206 left on Friday morning, the 26th of Cheshvan, 5760. Among the hundreds of passengers, were the shaliach and Chief Rabbi of Uzbekistan and Central Asia, Rabbi Dovid Gurewitz, and his wife, along with the shaliach of Tashkent, Rabbi Dov Akselrod, who had left his young wife and daughter behind. The three were on their way to the Kinus HaShluchim taking place that day in New York.

There was a one-hour stopover in the capitol of the Ukraine, Kiev, and then they would be off to N.Y., arriving a few hours before Shabbos. After five hours of flying, the plane was flying over Kiev, but due to the heavy fog, the pilot had to circle until the visibility improved.

The pilot didn’t want to take any chances. Less than a week before, an airplane of the same design had dropped into the Atlantic an hour after takeoff from Kennedy Airport on its way to Egypt. The cause of the tragedy was not known. Finally, after an hour and a half of circling Kiev, the pilot was allowed to land. The local time was 11:30 a.m.

Despite the delay, the shluchim thought they could still make there way to N.Y. before Shabbos. According to their calculations the flight would take nine hours; there would still be a few hours before Shabbos.

The passengers disembarked, and waited in the terminal while the plane refueled. Uzbekistan Airlines was punctual, and an hour after they landed, the passengers were asked to re-board the plane.

The plane began taxiing towards the runway. The pilot greeted the passengers and said, “Dear passengers, good morning. We are happy to have you fly Uzbekistan Airways. It is now 12:30 p.m., and in ten-and-a-half hours we will be landing at Kennedy Airport.”

Rabbi Gurewitz and Rabbi Akselrod looked at their watches. They were shocked to discover that they were actually due to land in N.Y about an hour after sunset. There own calculations had been wrong!

While the plane made a sharp right turn as it approached the runway, the pilots turned out the lights, revved up the engines, and asked for clearance and permission to takeoff. Rabbi Gurewitz got up and went over to the stewards. “We have a problem,” he said. He briefly explained about Shabbos, and how they could not continue on the flight.

The steward looked at the two rabbis as though they were mad. He quickly called for the head steward, who, in turn, reported to the pilots. The plane stopped, and the captain emerged from the cockpit in order to fully comprehend the unusual circumstances.

To Rabbi Gurewitz’s question as to whether the flight time could be shortened, the pilot politely explained that that was impossible. “Well, then we have to get off the plane,” said Rabbi Gurewitz decisively, “my wife and myself and this man who is with us,” he said pointing at Rabbi Akselrod.

The pilot didn’t understand what the problem was. All attempts to explain the religious dilemma fell on deaf ears. “Anyway,” the captain maintained, “Subbota (Shabbos) is tomorrow, and we will be arriving the night before.”

The three passengers were insistent, so the pilots stopped the plane and called for security. Rabbi Akselrod and Rabbi Gurewitz were familiar with international law, which states that if a passenger wants to disembark, no matter what the reason, they must allow him to do so.

A ramp was positioned leading to the plane’s entrance, and security forces boarded the plane and asked for explanations. Despite the repeated answers they gave, the security men were also left puzzled in the face of such bizarre obstinacy. They tried to convince the rabbis that the flight was safe, and that there was no likelihood of winds or storms, but the shluchim remained strong in their resolve, politely though firmly.

The security men got in touch with their superiors, and finally returned and said that these passengers could not disembark because they had no visas or permits to stay in Kiev. The pilot added that the airline would take them to court and demand compensation for delaying the flight for no good reason.

Threats didn’t move them. The authorities had no choice but to allow the three passengers to leave the plane. They boarded a bus which had been sent to get them. Now their luggage had to be located. International law states that a flight may not take off with personal property if the passenger is not on board.

This took place at the end of Cheshvan, and it was freezing. Porters entered the cargo area and began searching for two suitcases amidst a thousand others. Time marched on and the remaining passengers were irate. Everybody was losing their patience.

Every so often, a senior official or another figure of authority would approach the rabbis to convince them to return to the plane. They reminded the shluchim that they were preventing the successful take-off of the flight, but the three resisted the pressure.

The authorities were truly upset. Their threats escalated. They informed the shluchim that since they had no visas, they would have to remain in the terminal for two days until the next flight from Uzbekistan to New York would arrive. That would be Sunday morning.

After an hour and a half of waiting on the ice-cold bus, the suitcases were found, and at 2:00 p.m. on Friday afternoon, the shluchim were brought to Kiev’s international airport. Rabbi Gurewitz, an American citizen, tried to contact the American Embassy in Kiev in order to arrange permission for them to enter Kiev. He hoped they would be able to spend Shabbos with local shluchim, but the people at the embassy could not help them without visas. He tried to contact the Israeli Embassy, but since it was Friday afternoon, nobody answered.

In the meantime, their tickets and passports were confiscated, leaving them with no identifying papers. Finally, Rabbi Gurewitz tried to call his sister-in-law who lives in Chicago to tell her that they would not be arriving for Shabbos, and that they should not worry, but the battery in his cell phone died.

Things looked bleak. Finally, one of the airport workers allowed them to borrow his cell phone. Rabbi Gurewitz spoke with his sister-in-law and asked her to tell his family in New York not to go meet him at the airport.

Luckily, the Gurewitz’s had brought some wine, bread, and canned fish and meat with them to eat on the flight or as emergency provisions. They realized that they would have to greet the Shabbos Queen in the Ukrainian terminal. Not long afterwards, Shabbos arrived. The shluchim removed their kapotas from their suitcases, tied their gartels, and began Kabbalas Shabbos. They sang a quiet Chassidishe tune as they turned around and said, “Bo’i challa, bo’i challa.”

The three sat down to eat their Shabbos meal with the little bit of food they had. Rabbi Gurewitz said kiddush. Mrs. Gurewitz served their Shabbos “delicacies,” saving enough for the next day. Unfortunately, there was no hot soup.

Aside from the discomfort of being stared at by passersby, the meal passed by pleasantly. They were happy they had withstood the test. They had no idea what tests still lay ahead of them.

The meal quickly turned into a farbrengen, and in their minds at least, they united with their fellow shluchim who were either in 770 or the Oholei Torah’s ballroom. They discussed the concept of “Where a man’s will is that is where he is to be found.”

They tried to sleep on the iron benches. It wasn’t easy falling asleep in such a noisy place. When they got up in the morning, Mrs. Gurewitz’s eyes were red from lack of sleep.

Since it was Shabbos Mevarchim, they began saying the book of Tehillim. They certainly had plenty of time, and no place to go. They began a leisurely davening and ate the Shabbos meal with the little bit that remained of their food.

In the middle of their meal, an officer approached them and said that a flight would be leaving Kiev for Tashkent shortly, and if they were interested they could go back home. Rabbi Gurewitz explained that the reason they were there was because they could not travel on Shabbos, and that they were waiting for the Sunday morning flight to New York. The officer listened to his explanation and left.

A few minutes later, a captain approached them. He politely but resolutely told them, “Since you do not have visas for the Ukraine, there is no reason for you to wait in the terminal. You must board the first flight to Tashkent, which is leaving shortly.”

Again they explained that they could not fly because it was Shabbos, when Jews are prohibited from traveling. The police officer refused to accept their explanation. “I understand, but you must board the plane to Tashkent.”

As if on cue, three additional policemen appeared. They were armed, and without saying a word they surrounded the three shluchim. The message was clear.

Rabbi Gurewitz realized that the situation was deteriorating, and he decided to speak their language. “You can’t threaten me,” he said steadfastly. “You didn’t succeed in frightening me thirty years ago, and I continued to observe my religion. You won’t succeed today either. I know you well, and we are not afraid of you.”

The officer, who was somewhat taken aback by this retort, called for the civilian police of Kiev. The tumult around the three of them was tremendous. More police officers arrived on the scene, and now they were surrounded by half a dozen armed policemen. They looked pleased at the idea of getting rid of these Jews.

Psychological warfare was also waged against the rabbis. The loudspeakers announced that passengers Gurewitz and Akselrod were asked to board the plane, and that all the passengers were waiting for them. The message was continually repeated. The policemen said the passengers were waiting just for them and if they didn’t want to go, they would be forcibly put on the plane.

Rabbi Gurewitz, as befits the chief rabbi of Uzbekistan, stood fast with Jewish pride. “Just try to force us on the plane, and you’ll have an international scandal on your hands,” he threatened. “The newspapers around the world will feature pictures of you dragging three religious Jews on the plane against their will. This, more than anything else, will hurt your president, Mr. Leonid Kotchma, who is entering another round of elections this week.”

It was a standoff: Rabbi Gurewitz, in his black sirtuk and white beard, against the Ukrainian police officer, who stood there expressionless. Kedusha vs. tuma.

Evidently, the police chief saw that further talk was pointless, so he turned to leave, instructing his officers to remain there. He continued to give orders over the police radio. Meanwhile, many passengers in the terminal gathered around and watched the scene carry on.

At some point, Rabbi Gurewitz overheard the conversation between the policemen over the radio. “Why don’t you get them on?” he heard the police chief ask angrily. The man on the scene replied, “Do you want us to force them on?” as he wiped the sweat from his forehead.

Rabbi Dov Akselrod remembered that you can write the Rebbe a Pa’N even in your mind, as Reb Mendel Futerfas had done in Siberia. [Upon his release from imprisonment, Reb Mendel found a letter that the Rebbe had sent him (to his wife at home), dated just at the time he had communicated a mental message to the Rebbe during his imprisonment.] He decided that the time had come to write the Rebbe and ask for his bracha. He closed his eyes and wrote the Pa’N in his mind. “Rebbe, we need help fast, in order to get out of this with kindness and mercy.”

He turned to Rabbi Gurewitz quietly and asked, “Do you remember the story with Reb Mendel?” Rabbi Gurewitz immediately understood, and said, “Yes. I just wrote a Pa’N, too.”

Less than a minute later, the order came over the radio for the soldiers to leave. The officer in charge looked at them with daggers in his eyes, mumbling, “You are crazy,” as he left with his men.

The salvation of Hashem is like the blink of an eye. The Rebbe helps. The shluchim went back to their farbrengen, happy that they had withstood the test.

A few hours later, darkness descended and the Shabbos Queen departed. They made Havdala and sat down to eat their last crumbs for Melaveh Malka. Rabbi Akselrod called his wife, who had remained in Tashkent. He informed her, to her great surprise, that they were still in Kiev. He asked her to get help, and to try to obtain entry permits for them for Kiev, as well as food.

They settled down to sleep on the metal benches again. They didn’t know how much time went by when they heard loud voices in Hebrew. “Chevra, what’s doing?” Rabbi Akselrod woke up first and saw two men from the Israeli Embassy in Kiev.

Mrs. Akselrod had tried to contact the shluchim in Kiev, but they were all at the Kinus HaShluchim in the United States. She finally reached Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, chief rabbi of Kiev. He, in turn, called the security officer at the Israeli Embassy in Kiev, Mr. Yitzhar, and two representatives of the embassy were allowed into the terminal. The embassy tried to arrange for the shluchim to enter Kiev, but the official in charge of border passes was off duty.

In the meantime, a package of food from Rabbi Bleich arrived with fish, meat, plenty of canned foods, and drinks. He included a humorous note to Rabbi Gurewitz expressing his surprise that, although the rabbi had arrived in town, he hadn’t stopped by to visit.

The shluchim were moved by the help offered by the embassy and Rabbi Bleich. It demonstrated to them the power of ahavas Yisroel.

The next morning, the flight attendants of Uzbekistan Airways approached the three passengers politely and asked whether they were ready to leave. The flight attendants said that the airline would not be suing them after all. The shluchim were respectfully escorted to the plane where they were the first to board. They arrived in time for the banquet in 770, and joined their fellow shluchim, who are busy preparing the world to greet Moshiach.



Rabbi Gurewitz and Rabbi Akselrod looked at their watches. They were shocked to discover that they were actually due to land in N.Y about an hour after sunset. There own calculations had been wrong!


Rabbi Dovid Abba Gurewitz


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