Esther Feinstein

Fifty Hours to the Border

Refugees fleeing conflict make their way to the Krakovets border crossing with Poland on March 9, 2022 in Krakovets, Ukraine. More than a million people have fled Ukraine following Russia's large-scale assault on the country, with hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians passing through Lviv on their way to Poland. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Refugees fleeing conflict make their way to the Krakovets border crossing with Poland on March 9, 2022 in Krakovets, Ukraine. More than a million people have fled Ukraine following Russia's large-scale assault on the country, with hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians passing through Lviv on their way to Poland. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The dream of soaring on eagle’s wings could be written in one’s destiny.  

It hit home. This was personal. As far back as I could remember, I always wanted to have an impact on others, and growing up as a daughter of emissaries to then becoming an emissary myself is very rewarding. 

I always wondered, if my husband wasn’t an only child, would we be in the middle of the war? His story of leaving the Soviet Union, a Ukrainian Jewish man, and having the privilege to become a Chabad rabbi was surreal! 

However, there are those in Chabad that like to be what we call on the front lines, and even go to places that have barely what one would call comforts. 

As Rabbi Akiva said, the cardinal rule of the Torah is to love your fellow as yourself, and as the Lubavitcher Rebbe expounded upon this idea to just to do a favor for another. 

I wanted to go on shlichus to Ukraine as far back as I could remember, and to help build up its Jewish community, and show our brethren that I cared. 

By Divine Providence, I ended up in the Midwest with a great fellowship of emissaries, and I was part of being on the front lines, two hours in every direction of a larger Jewish community. We roll up our sleeves each day and try to make our community feel loved and cherished, to bring a sense of belonging and wholesomeness to its doorstep. 

It then happened that whispers of war were circling each household, and Chabad felt a deep unrest, with over five thousand Jewish community homes around the world. It started as if in the night, one to another, each emissary begging, how can we help? Or what can we do? 

The Rebbe’s Army upfront, its close-up was really on display; Chabad in its fight and love to help others got involved to bring their people out safely! It almost feels that in times of war and in times of peace, little good soldiers come out in droves to help.

The danger was real, the feeling of suffocating from our brethren’s suffering: their tears, fears, worries, raw shame, and sprouting new orphans, young and old. There was a thief with force, to claim land not his, who came with tanks and ammunition in the middle of the night, but what could be done? 

Bombs going off like firecrackers were exploding everywhere; it seemed surreal. It felt like one of those moments in time when it didn’t seem real. This couldn’t be. 

Loved ones being separated, curfews to stay indoors, and food and water shortages, no one dared to imagine what would be next. This must be the worst; it must be the end, right? 

It felt personal for me, my friends, and fellow Chabad were stuck in hot spots but refused to leave without taking their communities with whom they helped raise and loved as family. To leave them behind was not an option! For who could ever leave their family behind? 

As if feeling the world’s pulse, the world was not ready! It still was so shaky after the Second World War, and no leader knew where to step right and what to do. What would be the end result? What are the repercussions if one got involved? 

Footsteps, footsteps, footsteps, circling around each other forced with decisions, but no one moved out of their own box.  A country was burning, people were screaming, and few knew what to do. 

The only group who wore their heart on their sleeves and donned the proud garments of Chassidic Jews held their eyes heavenward as if getting the right GPS signals. Politics, looking the other way, and getting itself out leaving others behind was not the flesh and blood of Chabad. Time was of the essence! It meant if no one would stand up someone had to. 

 A meeting was called, and behind-the-scenes emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe started mobilizing a plan to help get out every single Jew. Just like a brand new baby, each person was cherished and embraced. The cost, the impact, the repercussions, political fallout: Chabad knew these were little pennies, compared to the real jewels of getting their brethren alive. 

Time was of the essence, it was here in the Midwest where a meeting was called. Each community got involved from many, many different towns. We couldn’t wait for the governments of other countries to jump in because it would be too late. 

It was 50 hours to the border, in the middle of a battlefield, and no one was willing to do it, but there was no other way. The help had to happen, and Chabad stepped forward. We had to raise over a million dollars to even mobilize such a plan. 

It was before the big meeting where congregants and Chabad leaders, communities as one, would plan how to make this vision of 50 hours to the border a reality. Buses, cars, trucks, trains, whatever it would take, everyone young and old, families and orphans were heading to the border. 

There were recently many new orphans: many parents afraid to put their kids in harm’s way had dropped their children as orphans to the doorstep of many Chabad houses in hopes that they would get them out alive. 

The mindset each emissary had was to take this personally: it touched our very souls! All were getting out. No Jew would be left behind! Not this time!

“Never again” held its ring and tone in each one of our people’s ears. Before a world war again could, G-d forbid, happen, no Jew would be left behind. 

 As any Chabad emissary would tell you, we felt jealous that we couldn’t be on the front lines helping: I admired the heroes and heroines who did the unthinkable, the impossible, in war-torn Ukraine, running and helping to save lives, locking themselves into their synagogues, and refusing to leave without their communities. 

The heart and soul of Chabad was on display, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s message ringing in our ears of helping, doing, changing, and not letting any stone lie unturned. 

It was around this time that one of the emissaries who was stuck in Ukraine spoke to all of us. I remembered her last name and wondered if she could be related. Is she the wife of a childhood friend? Was he the son of my father’s best friend? They were like two peas in a pod: each holiday, rain or shine, we spent together celebrating.  

I found my answer, and it was him! He was stuck with a broken leg in a hotspot with bombs pouring down like a torrential downpour. My husband and I gave of our own pockets without hesitation and only asked to be notified when they reached safety. 

Finally, escaping from a hot spot, a place  where no one can get out without a miracle, they made it to the border.   Miraculously, sobbing she told me that they and their community were safe. They were out! Fifty hours to the border with guards and each community member, with G-d cradling them, they survived!

A few days later, the big meeting took place, and congregants and emissaries planned together a real solution to raising our hands to help when no one else came out of the woodwork.

 Congregants and emissaries decided the money would be given as a group. Charity always seems to be a good idea, but this was different! It was a million dollars to raise, and where would it come from? A loan to pay back?

 It was putting down Chabad’s imprint on the war: we wouldn’t just let the travesty happen again. 

There was no choice. The words bounced off inside of our heads like a ping pong ball. This is what we found in the dagger edge, the focal point in the storm.  We don’t have this type of money but as a community effort can we do it? 

Many communities give, borrow, grant loan after loan, perhaps mortgage? Can it be pulled off? By this time, over a few hours later, it was set in stone, not to be changed. The love for our brethren was overwhelming, and our heartstrings pulled for love and peace. 

There was no hope unless we mobilized as Chabad, as a  group, leaders and congregants, the Chabad family, filled with love, to give the amount needed and assign those emissaries and volunteers to the borders to bravely and gently escort those out. It meant putting real actual boots on the ground.

Stories were told of embrace, promises to return, boarding up the synagogues because a Chabad Rabbi goes down like a general in the war: our congregants were also loved, like an only child, embraced until the end. The running joke became that Chabad can mobilize an army to get millions of Jews out, so why is Israel  dragging their feet?

Even if Israel was trying their best, everything somehow became political, and Jewish lives were being lost. Time was of the essence! Where was the protection for the Jewish people? 

It felt reminiscent of WWII, rabbis with their whole congregations stood together with Sefer Torahs in hand, but this time rather than their fate at Auschwitz, Jews were being saved by the Rebbe’s Army. 

The Rebbe would spend hours in line just to allow one to partner with him in the mitzvah of Tzedakah. He would have personal yechidus to spend the time to help each person who came to him with one’s emotional, financial, and spiritual situations in life. He would breathe new life and positivity and guide one to the right decision gently and with love. 

The pulse, heart and soul, of Chabad breathes with no Jew left behind whether a Jews spiritual well-being, or just simply mobilizing the Chabad army to get each community out, young and old, religious or non. Each person is a diamond; each person deserved to live, feel comfort, happiness, and safety. 

Finally, Israel stepped in, and other countries too. Communities then had help, and Chabad would stay with them until each person was resettled in a new home. 

As we know, the Chabad emissaries of Ukraine went back to continue to help those that cannot leave. The rest of us Chabad emissaries admire their courage, love, and devotion to our Jewish brethren. 

About the Author
Born in New York state into a family on Shlichus, Esther was formally trained in Chabad institutions in America and Canada as an educator and community leader with the lifelong goal of helping an under-served Jewish populace. She and her husband, along with their children, have been serving the local community, as well as the Northeast Wisconsin region, for over a decade, providing for any and all needs of everyone's personal journey with G-d. Her recently released book - "The Lamplighter: Experiences of a Chabad Rebbitzin" - chronicles these experiences and is available for purchase through Mosaica Press at
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