Teenage Yeshiva Students Escape Ukraine After 40-hour, Cross-country Trip

With just a few hours notice, yeshiva students hailing from the U.S. and other Ukrainian cities embarked on a journey to escape the Russian invasion. 'God willing, we'll go back,' says the local Chabad emissary

Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol
The yeshiva students who took part in a remarkable 40-hour journey across the former Soviet Republic to Odessa — before crossing the border to Moldova and, eventually, Romania.
The yeshiva students who took part in a remarkable 40-hour journey across the former Soviet Republic to Odessa — before crossing the border to Moldova and, eventually, Romania.Credit: Yechiel Weber
Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol

When Meir Kaminezki arrived in Dnipro in 2020 to attend the Tomchei Temimim yeshiva, he never imagined that less than two years later he would be fleeing across Ukraine to escape a Russian invasion.

The nephew of Dnipro Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, the 14-year-old Chabad Hasid from Taos, New Mexico was one of 35 students, four of them American, who took part in a remarkable 40-hour journey which took them hundreds of miles across the former Soviet Republic to Odessa — before crossing the border to Moldova and, eventually, Romania.

After the fighting started, most of the yeshiva’s nearly 80 students returned home to their parents but a small core of foreigners and students from distant cities across Ukraine were left.

“We started hearing rumors in general about the war towards the end of January,” but it wasn’t until last Thursday morning when Russian forces crossed the border that “they told us to be packed with a suitcase ready to go,” Kaminezki recalled, describing how their exit was postponed several times because of yeshiva administrators’ safety concerns.

But on Monday afternoon, they changed their minds, giving the students only several hours notice that they would soon be boarding a train to the southern port city of Odessa, from which they would attempt to cross the border to safety.

The students waiting to board a train on their way to leave UkraineCredit: Yechiel Weber

Told to pack lightly in case they were forced to deboard the train and walk, the yeshiva students, accompanied by Rabbi Moshe Weber, a longtime Israeli Chabad emissary in Dnipro, boarded a train alongside multiple local families and their children, including two newborns less than three weeks old.

A lot of people were trying to leave,” Kaminezki said, describing a train platform crammed with refugees desperate to get as far west as possible. “There were a few sirens while we were there so we just ran downstairs to be safe from missiles. But no actual bombs fell on Dnipro.”

Once on the train, Rabbi Weber organized a fabrengen, a traditional Chabad celebration marked by singing and the sharing of religious homilies, to distract his young charges. Sitting amidst their suitcases in a crowded and decrepit train filled with refugees from across eastern Ukraine, the boys belted out Hasidic melodies while Weber contended with the unpleasant thought that they were “running away like a thief.”

But it was, for whatever inscrutable reason, “what God wants,” he mused to Haaretz, saying that he felt that he had a duty “to keep the morale and the mood up” although, he personally, “didn’t sleep all night.”

For his part, Kaminezki said that since the yeshiva students “didn’t know much,” they were much less scared than they should have been. “I’d definitely be more nervous if I knew then what we had [really] done.”

But while the young man wasn’t overly nervous, his parents back in the United States were “panicked and worried,” especially because spotty communications meant that they were unable to track his progress, he said, a sentiment echoed by other U.S.-born students on the train.

“In the beginning we were very scared because we heard that all the airports were bombed, including in our city. We had a feeling that we were trapped. But we ended up crossing the border with big miracles,” said Levi Chudaitov, a 17-year-old student from the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.

While sitting and singing on the train, the students kept thinking back to a similar incident from 1946 when a group of Chabad Hasidim, using fake passports, escaped from the Soviet Union.

“We’re doing the same thing our grandparents did, even if for different reasons,” he said.

While their train was stopped several times during the evening, the group finally arrived in Odessa on Monday morning, where they boarded buses in order to cross over the Moldovan border.

“There were many families by the border, with more people walking across than were in cars because it was faster to go by foot,” recalled Chudaitov.

The students aboard a train heading out of UkraineCredit: Yechiel Weber

“It was cold on the buses. There were women and small kids crying,” Weber added, describing how they were met by Ambassador Joel Lion, the former Israeli envoy to Kyiv and himself an observant Jew, who prayed with the group before they went on to the Moldovan capital of Chisinau.

From there, the group made its way to Romania from where they boarded a Thursday afternoon flight to Paris, en route to Germany, where a Chabad emissary in the city of Düsseldorf had agreed to take them in so they could continue their Talmudic education.

“I’m going to continue learning for the protection of Ukraine,” Chudaitov said, hoping that the merit of his Torah study offers protection to Jews currently in danger.

As for Weber, who helps run a network of kollels, advanced yeshivas for married men, throughout the former Soviet Union, he believes that the yeshiva and the associated local community are not defeated.

“I don't know what will happen, but we have a very strong community. We are one hundred percent sure that, God willing, we’ll go back.”

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