Rosh Hashana and 25 bullets

It was Erev Rosh Hashanah. Chaim Silber got off the plane at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, found a taxi, rushed home, showered, got dressed, and left for shul. As he stood praying the first Amidah of Rosh Hashana, Chaim was overwhelmed with joy, gratitude, and relief. He could hardly believe that only that morning he had been in a Moscow diner nervously awaiting the chief of police to decide whether to close a criminal case against him.

In July 2014, two months before this remarkable moment, Chaim decided to pay a surprise visit to his family in Monsey, New York. Only his mother knew about his plans, and the two of them made the travel arrangements. Chaim had made Aliyah a few years before, had served as a lone soldier in the Israeli Army and was studying for his B.A. in Bar-Ilan University when he planned this trip back to the US.

Knowing his nieces’ and nephews’ love for Israel, and their pride in their uncle’s army service, Chaim decided to bring them a gift: army paraphernalia. He packed a string of 23 bullets in his suitcase, something he had done in the past, thinking there could not be a cooler present to bring his older siblings’ kids after not having seen them for so long.

Chaim had a stopover in Russia on the way home. In the Moscow airport, all he could think about was how excited he was to finally be going to Monsey to see his family. He was getting ready for his connecting flight when security called him over. That is when his two-month nightmare began.

As Russian officials started searching Chaim, he didn’t understand what the issue could be. It didn’t occur to him that carrying bullets was a problem. When the security agents showed him “the issue”, which they said was a capital offense, Chaim explained that they were gifts for some kids in New York, that he didn’t know better, that he was sorry, that they could throw the bullets in the garbage or take them (no problem!), and he could now get on his next flight. Right? Please? The answer to his questions was clear from the expressions on their Russian faces. Soon, missing his next flight was the least of his problems. Surrounded by officials screaming at him in Russian, it dawned on him that they didn’t understand his explanation of clear innocence in the matter. Chaim realized he was in deep trouble.

Chaim’s things (including his passport) were taken away and after a couple of hours of incomprehensible Russian chatter and endless Tehilim, two government officials, dressed in civilian clothes, armed with side pistols and no IDs, walked into the room. They had the look and swag of government agents from the Soviet era and were possibly FSB, the modern version of KGB. After being questioned, interrogated, and interviewed without having an official English translator or a document verifying the legality of the process, Chaim found his predicament worsening. He hadn’t asked for a lawyer to represent him because he believed if he cooperated, he would be let free. Chaim defended his innocence as much as he could, but it was to no avail. They arrested him, took him into a bunker within the police station in the airport. For hours he had no idea what was going to happen next.

Chaim found out quickly that someone caught with ammunition in his possession without proper certification could spend up to four years in prison. When Chaim understood what he did was illegal in Russia and that he was suspected of being either a spy, criminal, or a foreign arms dealer, he was overcome with fear.

Chaim was finally allowed to call the Israeli embassy. The embassy officials helped by sending an official translator and a public defender. The translator could have been any Russian, but to Chaim’s surprise, the translator was a former Israeli lone soldier who spoke Hebrew, English, and Russian. Andre, lovingly known as “Gever” (strong one!) walked in wearing a shooting instructor t-shirt, a gun strapped to his hip, a smile on his face, and a resume to live up to. He was a former counter-terrorist operative in the Israeli army, a commander, a former Russian police officer, and was currently working as a government translator. Andre got Chaim permission to call his mother and tell her that he would not be arriving in JFK as planned. The fact that Andre was Jewish, available, local, and had many connections to Chabad and government officials was the first of many transparent miracles that occurred in the next few weeks.

Andre was also accompanied by a public defender named Alex. Alex just happened to be heading home when he received the call of an Israeli who was detained at the airport. Alex also happened to be the only Jew in his branch and had major connections and experience in law, despite his young age. Together Alex and Andre made every effort to help their fellow Jew.

From the moment Andre met Chaim he was throwing crucial instructions at him. “Take these cigarettes, use them as currency, don’t tell anyone what you did, who you are, where you are from or that you were a soldier. Give me your wallet and ID’s,” Andre commanded. Chaim looked at Andre and asked one simple question, “Where am I going?” A Russian jail was the shocking response. Chaim thought a minute and then asked Andre if he should take his kippah off. “Keep your kippah on,” Andre said. “If you wear it they will look at you as someone with connections and confidence because otherwise, who would be crazy enough to keep a kippah on in a Russian prison?” Chaim listened and wore his kippah throughout the ordeal. Before Chaim was transferred to the prison, a Chabad Shaliach sent by the Rabbi of all Russian prisons, Rabbi Gurevtich, showed up delivering some pita, olives, and salami with an encouraging smile and a message; we are all praying for you!

Thrown into the back of a truck with a prisoner’s cage between him and the driver, with a woman in the front precariously holding a shotgun in his direction, Chaim sat in shock. “I’m in a movie,” he thought. With that image in mind, Chaim humored himself and took out a cigarette to fit the scene appropriately. But that moment passed when the reality of his destination sunk in. He began reciting Tehilim rigorously, one chapter after the other. He felt appreciative that they had let him keep his small siddur.

When Chaim arrived at the prison, his bag of belongings (which included his Tefillin) was taken from him. Before he was searched and escorted into a prison cell, Chaim was allowed only his books. Along with his siddur, two books that he happened to have were The Garden of Emunah and With all their Mights, a book about a man, also named Chaim, who was let out of prison in Akko. G-d really does have a sense of humor, Chaim thought.

The cell gate was locked behind him and in the dark, all he could see was a bunk bed. Suddenly, a tall, fully tattooed, long-haired, Mediterranean looking man jumped from the top bunk. “Welcome to hell, my friend,” the man who was twice the size of Chaim said in an unwelcoming tone. He introduced himself as a drug smuggler from Turkey. Heeding Andre’s advice, Chaim did not offer his own introduction, fearing he may be a police informant planted there in order to gather information.

Stomach rumbling, filled with fear, and utterly exhausted, Chaim forced himself to lay awake all night, as his cellmate kept peeking down from the top bunk to “check” on him. The next morning, his cellmate was abruptly taken out of the room and Chaim was left alone, making the atmosphere easier to breath in.

That same day in the afternoon, which happened to be Friday, Chaim was taken to the courthouse and had to wait his turn in a holding cell deep within the building. While being led to the cell, the other waiting criminals, noticing his kippa, started to chant “Yevri, Yevri” (derogatory term for Jew) while he passed them. He looked into the cell they selected for him and got a glimpse of who was awaiting his company. He saw six skinheads strongly resembling the look of neo-nazis (one of them looked like he had a swastika on his neck). He turned to the officer escorting him and, in English, spoke words that he will never forget: “I am going to die if you put me in there and my blood will be on your hands.” The man didn’t need to know English to understand the terror in Chaim’s eyes. Incredibly, the official made the six men leave the cell and join another cell containing six other men. As each of the six men exited the cell, they spat, pushed or gave Chaim hateful looks. Chaim was left in the vacated cell by himself. As the cell gate closed, Chaim knew his life had just been spared.

When Chaim was finally allowed into the courtroom, he was reassured by his mother on Andre’s phone that he would be fine. Besides Andre, Alex and a representative from the US Embassy, a Russian man named Yisrael, entered the courtroom. He told the judge that if Chaim was released he would take Chaim home, give him a job, and would make sure that he stayed out of trouble. Yisrael looked at Chaim and said, “Shalom Aleichem, Yid. Al tidag.” (Hello, Jew. Don’t worry). Yisrael was connected to the Jewish community and had been working with the Chief Rabbi of Russia, Rav Berel Lazar, to free Chaim. In the end of the court hearing, the Judge agreed to allow bail but the bail was not effective immediately. Chaim still had to spend some time in his jail cell.

Chaim went back to prison, and there was more waiting. With only the food that he was provided by the Chabad shaliach a few days earlier, he made it through Shabbos all the way to Wednesday, only leaving his cell once for a guarded 5-minute walk in the courtyard. Solitary confinement was the best option for Chaim. He did not speak to anyone; instead, he davened, read, and slept. Thinking he would be there for weeks or months, he rationed his food and waited patiently for the next word from the outside world. Early Wednesday morning, Chaim was greeted in his jail cell by Andre. Andre said he could finally leave jail but he could not leave Russia yet because he was still under investigation. Still, Chaim was overcome with emotion when he left prison.

The Moscow Jewish community allowed Chaim to stay by the Chabad yeshiva in the Jewish quarter for free until the investigation was over. Every day he went to the police station and courthouse to argue his case and wait for a sign of his final release. He was under house arrest and forbidden to leave the country under any circumstances. Chaim was advised to stay off the streets by Andre and spent most of his time in the Chabad house. As time passed, the investigation clearly showed that the Russian officials had engaged in illegal actions and had made poor decisions in the process of prosecuting him. In addition, one Russian prosecutor after the other disappeared from the case, perhaps knowing there was no way to fight Andre and Alex’s excellent case defending Chaim. Finally, Chaim was granted permission to leave the country, but only temporarily. After almost two weeks from the day he was arrested, Chaim flew home to Monsey for a week a half, with a return flight to Moscow.

When Chaim got home, he found out that Operation Protective Edge had broken out in Gaza. With the realization that his friends were at war and in harm’s way and that he wasn’t with them, combined with the personal trauma he was experiencing, Chaim finally broke down in tears. Feeling helpless, far from his fellow soldiers in Israel, and knowing his chapter in Russia was not closed, Chaim spent the entire Shabbos talking about his experiences, giving him tremendous release.

After returning to Russia, it became clear that Andre and Alex were correct in every one of their statements defending Chaim. After another week, Alex told Chaim to go back to Israel until they would call him back when they needed him.

Chaim was finally called back to court a few days before Rosh Hashana, the day the entire world is judged. Chaim flew back to Russia, not knowing what would happen. Finally, it became clear to the chief of police how ridiculous the entire case was and instead of more “trials”, he decided to negotiate other options. In the end, the option was for Chaim’s family to pay a large amount of money, in a very short period of time, and to hand it over to the chief of police for “safekeeping”. If all conditions were met, Chaim would be free and his criminal file would be deleted as if it never existed. The money was handed over in time with the help of Rabbi Gurevitch, Chaim’s family and friends, and the Moscow and Monsey communities. Chaim’s case was closed and deleted from existence.

It was Erev Rosh Hashanah. He got on the next plane, landed in Israel a few hours before candle lighting, got in a taxi, showered, dressed and ran for Shul as the sun set on Rosh Hashana night.

Chaim told everyone he knew and didn’t know not to fly with bullets. Then the unthinkable happened. In March 2017, Yitzchak, a yeshiva bochur from Lakewood who had been studying in Israel, got arrested on his way home from Israel for Pesach.

On a flight with a 2-hour layover in Moscow, Russian authorities found a souvenir item in Yitzchok’s luggage. He did not realize that it was a problem to transport bullets through Russia. The Russians detained Yitzchak in the airport and brought charges against him. This precipitated immediate action from his family and the Moscow Jewish community to try to resolve the situation.

An international effort was made during the next few months, with people working around the clock to have Yitzchak released. In partnership with Rabbi Aaron Kotler, Yitzchok’s family rallied some of the most famous leaders in the Jewish community, including the leadership of Agudath Israel of America, to use their wide-ranging political and State Department contacts on Yitzchok’s behalf.
While Yitzchak sat in prison, the Jewish community at large and the Rabbinic leaders in Moscow used every resource possible to ensure that Yitzchok’s physical and spiritual needs were protected, with Rabbi Gurevitch again deeply involved. Finally, negotiations were accepted by the Russian government and on June 19th the charges against Yitzchak were finally dropped without trial. Yitzchak arrived home in Lakewood, greeted by hundreds of people singing and dancing. Yitzchok’s miraculous release and return, the fact that the Russians did not cause him any physical harm during his detainment, and his ability to stay strong and positive throughout this ordeal, highlight the miraculous nature of his experience.

True, these are incredible stories. Yet, a lesson from these stories must be heeded. No one should fly with bullets or any form of ammunition in Russia, or anywhere, ever. Every yeshiva bochur, seminary girl, and every single person in the world, Jewish or not Jewish, should know this. This warning should be spread in every possible way! This matter needs to be publicised! These words need to spread far and wide. DO NOT FLY WITH BULLETS. Ever.

Chaim and Yitzchok experienced a trauma that no one should have to live through. The fact that they survived, made it out unharmed, and did not have to sit in jail longer than they did, is truly miraculous. But the story happened two times too many. Someone’s innocence and lack of awareness of this issue could cause real damage to that person’s life. Take a moment to think how and where you can share this message. You can truly save another person from harm and trauma.



About the Author
Sarah Bechor is a freelance writer in addition to her full-time job at United Hatzalah. She made Aliyah in 2007 and now lives with her husband and children in Gush Etzion.
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