For JC September 2021
An extraordinary series of rescue missions is being carried out in Afghanistan, funded by a 40-year-old strictly Orthodox rabbi from Brooklyn, Rabbi Moshe Margaretten, and carried out by a team headed by the Israeli-American contractor, Moti Kahana.
And to the surprise of many, among those who have finally left the country is Zevulun Simantov, 62, long described as the last Jew in Afghanistan.
Mr Simantov had been due to leave Kabul, where he lived in the capital’s remaining synagogue, more than two weeks ago. But at the very last moment he changed his mind, telling Moti Kahana that he was no longer prepared to go to Israel, where his estranged wife has been living since 1998, because he had repeatedly refused to give her a get, or religious divorce. He thought he would be subject to religious sanctions in Israel if he persisted in his refusal.
But as Mr Kahana told the JC this week: “I explained to Zevulun that it wasn’t the Taliban he had to fear, but Isis”. Citing the tragic fate of American-Jewish journalist Steven Sotloff, kidnapped in Aleppo, Syria, and beheaded by Isis in 2014, Mr Kahana impressed on Mr Simantov the dangers he would face if he insisted on staying in Kabul. At times, during their many conversations, shooting could be heard in the background, Mr Kahana said.
“Finally he agreed to leave but asked if he could bring people with him. I said he could bring a maximum of 18 people. Of course, on the day he turned up with many more, and my guys [Mr Kahana’s extrication team] were getting very anxious. So we agreed on 30 people, mainly women and children”.
The group drove for 14 hours to an Afghan border with a still unnamed neighbouring country, where the plan was to take people over three at a time. Mr Simantov, however, wanted the whole group to proceed together. This meant that the group had to drive for a further nine hours to another area. Just before Rosh Hashana began, they were understood to be in a safe house, close by an American embassy.
Now, with the aid of US Senator Chuck Schumer’s office, the funds raised by Rabbi Margaretten’s Tzedek organisation will be used to bring Zevulun Simantov and the rest of the group to the United States. Mr Simantov has family in New York and has promised, according to Rabbi Margaretten, to give his wife a get.
Mr Kahana thinks that the last Jew in Afghanistan will eventually end up in Israel after spending time with his family. “I think that he will be in New York at least by Succot, but I am hoping for Yom Kippur”, Mr Kahana said.
Mr Kahana, who spent many thousands of dollars of his own money saving Syrians from the Assad regime, is being paid by Tzedek and other NGOs to carry out the Afghanistan rescue operation — because his Syrian work was mainly carried out by Afghans and so he had good local, on-the-ground, knowledge. He says he will continue the Afghan rescue missions until the funding runs out. To date, he says, he has a waiting list of more than 1,000 people who are desperate to leave Afghanistan, with a focus mainly on women. “Our first priority are people who have an American green card, but we are being very careful with the vetting of the people we bring out.”
Among those already helped by Rabbi Margaretten’s organisation were the Afghan women’s soccer team — now understood to be in Australia — and four children, hiding in a Kabul apartment, whose father was murdered by the Taliban and whose mother was desperate to bring them to America.
The rabbi himself is a member of the Skverer Chasidic sect. He told Chabad News: “As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, the horrific images of men, women and children desperately trying to flee for their lives from Afghanistan is a kick in the gut. There is no question in my mind that the success we’ve seen has come solely from the blessings and the Hand of God, and we are committed to continuing to fight to save every life that we can.”