Zebulon Simentov, who lived in a dilapidated synagogue in Kabul, kept kosher and prayed in Hebrew, endured decades of war as the country’s centuries-old Jewish community rapidly dwindled. But the Taliban takeover last month seems to have been the last straw.
Moti Kahana, an Israeli-American businessman who runs a private security group that organized the evacuation, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the 62-year-old Simentov and 29 of his neighbors, nearly all of them women and children or members of other persecuted religion minorities, have been taken to a “neighboring country.”
Rabbi Moshe Margaretten, who has been extensively involved in Afghan rescue efforts, told Hamodia that “even when [Simentov] agreed to go, he still was always busy with neighbors that are in danger and were helping him over the years. This was this community, and [he] felt bad leaving them alone, especially the kids and the wives. So mainly the whole group [were the wives and children of neighbors and] we paid for them as well. This was a part of the challenging part so we told Zebuolon, don’t worry about them. We’ll pay, we’ll take them as well.”
The majority of the people accompanying Simentov were children, with women and a few men. Kahana told AP that Simentov’s neighbors had pressed him to leave so that their children could join him on the bus out.
Kahana said Simentov, who had lived under Taliban rule before, was not worried about them. But Kahana warned him that he was at risk of being kidnapped or killed by the far more radical Islamic State group. Margaretten said some of these groups had begun making threats to Simentov’s life.
Margaretten provided the funds and the political connections, and hired Kahana for his manpower and experience helping evacuate refugees from dangerous areas in the Middle East.
“”I have a good rolodex from my years in criminal justice, and Moti also had some connections, so we worked together on strategizing each day. He has experience operating in Arab countries, so we hired [Kahana’s organization],” Margaretten told Hamodia.
Israel’s Kan public broadcaster aired footage of the evacuation, showing a bus full of people traveling across what appeared to be Afghanistan, with all the faces blurred except for Simentov’s.
Margaretten told Hamodia the entire exodus out of Afghanistan was a nail biter; at one point, the rescuers in the U.S. lost contact with the evacuation team as they were trying to cross the border for nearly 30 hours.
“None of the phones were working…we learned that it was a bomb that made them go silent,” Margaretten said. “So when I walked into [shul] on Rosh Hashana, we were not sure what happened…I didn’t know the whole Rosh Hashana and we were all very anxious,” he said, adding the unknown fates of the 30 men, women and children added another level of fervor to his davening. “After Rosh Hashana we learned that they are safe and where they needed to go.”
They joined an exodus of tens of thousands of Afghans who have fled since the Taliban swept across the country last month. The U.S. and its allies organized a massive airlift in the closing days of the 20-year-war, but officials acknowledged that up to 200 American citizens, as well as thousands of Afghans who had aided the war effort, were left behind.
Kahana said his group is reaching out to U.S. and Israeli authorities to find a permanent home for Simentov, whose children live in Israel. Margaretten told Hamodia he was working to help bring Simentov to the United States. The Afghan has an uncle, Isaac Simentov, in Jamaica, Queens, who he hopes to settle in with. As for the other refugees, he and his team are hoping to find places to settle them, as where they are currently sheltering is time-limited.
In the meantime, Margaretten said, they are in a safe location in country that is not Afghanistan and the U.S. embassy there is monitoring them.
Hebrew manuscripts found in caves in northern Afghanistan indicate a thriving Jewish community existed there at least 1,000 years ago. In the late 19th century, Afghanistan was home to some 40,000 Jews, many of them Persian Jews who had fled forced conversion in neighboring Iran. The community’s decline began with an exodus to Israel after its creation in 1948.
In an interview with The Associated Press in 2009, Simentov said the last Jewish families left after the 1979 Soviet invasion.
For several years he shared the synagogue building with the country’s only other Jew, Isaak Levi. The Taliban arrested both men and beat them, and they confiscated the synagogue’s ancient Torah scroll, which went missing after the Taliban were driven from power in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
Reporters who visited Simentov over the years found a portly man who kept a pet partridge, observed Jewish dietary restrictions and ran a kebab shop.
As for the shul in Kabul, a neighbor of Simentov will take care of it, and he will be paid through Margaretten. His son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren were on the evacuation bus along with Simentov.
With reporting by the Associated Press.