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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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,
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.”
if on cue, three additional policemen appeared. They were armed,
and without saying a word they surrounded the three shluchim.
The message was clear.
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
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.
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.
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
was a standoff: Rabbi Gurewitz, in his black sirtuk and
white beard, against the Ukrainian police officer, who stood there
expressionless. Kedusha vs. tuma.
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.
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
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
shluchim were moved by the help offered by the embassy and
Rabbi Bleich. It demonstrated to them the power of ahavas
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