Dramatic Shabbat Rescue Operation In St. Martin

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September 10—ZAKA volunteers, together with representatives from Israel, New York, and Holland, worked throughout Shabbat in a multinational WhatsApp rescue operation. The mission: to arrange the rescue of the wife and children of the Chabad emissary—stranded in treacherous conditions on the Caribbean island of St. Martin.

Rabbi Moishe Chanowitz, his wife Sara, and their five children under age 8 remained on the island to offer assistance to others during Hurricane Irma. However, as the winds picked up speed over Shabbat, the family left their home for the Chabad House, situated on higher ground. In the pressure of the moment, they forgot that the building was undergoing renovation and therefore did not find a safe haven there.

This was a classic case of the dictum “Pikuach nefesh docheh Shabbos”—rescuing a life takes precedence over the rules of Shabbat. The rabbi contacted World Chabad in New York and the ZAKA Search and Rescue organization, requesting help in evacuating his family from an island whose sea and air routes were closed.

A dedicated WhatsApp group was created to facilitate the transatlantic rescue, including New York-based Chabad Executive Director Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, ZAKA Chairman Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, ZAKA International Rescue Unit Chief Officer Mati Goldstein, ZAKA International Director David Rose, Zvi Gluck and David Kushnir from Amudim, Rabbi Isaac Lieder from Monsey, and representatives from Israel’s National Emergency Management Authority, the Foreign Ministry, the Israeli Embassy, and the Military Attaché in Holland, and others.

After hours of searching for a private plane to rescue them, Rabbi Isaac Lieder did find an eight-seater plane willing to fly; however, the Dutch authorities in St. Martin refused landing permission on the island.

“In ZAKA, we never give up,” explains ZAKA Chairman Yehuda Meshi-Zahav. “We reached out to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, but even the Israeli ambassador and military attaché in Holland were unsuccessful in getting the necessary landing permission.”

The efforts continued and, after many hours of international activities, contact was made with the pilot of a plane bringing humanitarian aid into the area. He finally agreed to pick up the stranded family, and Sara boarded the plane with her five children; they were flown to Puerto Rico. The Chabad emissary decided to stay on the island to offer help to others.

A few hours later, ZAKA received another call for help—this time from a group of Jewish tourists, including medical students, from the U.S. and Canada who were stranded on the island and seeking shelter in St. Martin’s medical school. Contact was made with a U.S. plane bringing humanitarian aid into the island and the group was rescued two hours before the end of Shabbat. 

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