Some claim that the last time the mercury fell to 30 below zero in Russia, it was 1927; others say it’s a ten year cycle. All agree, however, that it’s brutal. News reports tell of more than thirty people who died in recent days from exposure to the arctic temperatures blanketing the country where staying warm indoors has become a challenge.
It was at about three a.m. during one of these frigid nights last week that 10 Israelis traveling along an isolated road got stuck when their car broke down. The group of two families was on a pilgrimage to the tombs of Chasidic Rebbes buried in remote, Russian backwaters.
“It’s a tradition among many Jews,” says Rabbi Yakov Fridman, who got the call at 4 a.m. from the freezing and frightened Israelis. They were waiting for a replacement car from the car rental company to come fetch them. Fridman, the Chabad representative to Moscow’s Israeli community and a member of the administrative board of FJC’s educational institutions, says they were some 300 kilometers distance from Moscow—about four hours away, and more than enough time to prepare a hot breakfast to warm up the quorum when they would arrive to the Fridman home at around 10 a.m.
But it took four hours for the replacement car to arrive—by that time it was 8:00 a.m., and if that wasn’t bad enough, the rental company sent a tiny car, enough only for two. So the men hitched the large car up to the replacement car in which the two women rode, and that’s how they chugged along—eight men in a freezing monster, being towed by a sorry little compact until that too gave out, breaking down after only fifty kilometers.
At 11:00 a.m. Rabbi Fridman received a call from them. Fridman lost no time, and contacted his colleague Rabbi Avraham Bekerman, Director of Machon Chamesh Women’s University in Moscow. “They were in a really precarious situation and we had to get there fast,” he says. The two headed out with two cars and some food stuff to the desperate group, now about two hours away from Moscow.
“Chabad’s Shluchim were angels who had come to save us,” said Tzvi Beck, one of the rescued, of Rabbis Fridman and Bekerman.
“It’s hard to describe their relief upon our arrival,” says Rabbi Fridman. “They were literally stranded in mortally dangerous weather on largely deserted roads with only the occasional commercial trucks that did not offer to stop for them.”
When they finally arrived at three in the afternoon, they were exhausted and grateful to have been delivered safely to the Fridman’s dining room table, where Mrs. Sashi Fridman had a home-cooked nourishing, hot meal set out for them.
“I don’t know how we’d have been rescued were it not for Chabad’s Shluchim,” said Mrs. Beck. The group resolved to “bentsch gomel”—to formally offer a blessing of thanks for their miraculous survival, at prayer services.
With Mrs. Fridman’s warm and gracious hospitality, the travelers came back to themselves quickly, and asked Rabbi Fridman to show them some of Chabad’s institutions and activities in Moscow before they continued on their way to Ukraine. Fridman gladly obliged, giving them a tour of the FJC’s orphanage, its educational institutions and the Jewish community center—vibrant, active places dedicated to the nurture of Jewish life.
It wasn’t on their itinerary, but the detour turned out to be a fitting denouement to their trip. Chaim Roitman, one of those rescued, told Rabbi Fridman that he never realized the extent of the contribution that Chabad Shluchim make in taking up these outposts all over the world.
“I knew that you save neshamas (souls),” he admitted. “But now I’ve experienced your life-saving activities as well.”