The last known member of Afghanistan’s Jewish community left the country on Friday, taking 30 other people with him – including 28 women and children – on a five day mission to safety, according to the group who carried out the evacuation.
Zebulon Simentov lived in and maintained the only Synagogue in Kabul, surviving in part off donations from overseas. A well known figure in the Afghan capital, Simentov, who is in his early 60s, had lived through decades of conflict and political turmoil, including the Taliban’s previous rule over the country from 1996 and 2001.
Simentov and 30 others traveled by van over Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain and negotiated multiple Taliban checkpoints before entering “a neighboring country” on Monday, the Jewish New Year Rosh Hashana, said Moti Kahana, an Israel-American businessman and philanthropist who organized his escape.
Simentov has been credited with helping to save dozens of children by refusing to leave them behind in Afghanistan, said Kahana.
Historical evidence suggests Afghanistan was once home to a sizable Jewish community. It reached 40,000 in the mid-19th century and began declining around 1870 with the passage of anti-Jewish measures, according to the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, a nonprofit group. Most of the remaining members of the country’s Jewish community left following Israel’s creation in 1948 and then in 1979 after the Soviet invasion, the group said.
Simentov’s status as the last member of the community to live in Afghanistan has received widespread media attention in recent decades, with numerous reports detailing his persistent refusal to leave the country, even after his wife and children relocated to Israel.
During an interview with CNN in 2010, Simentov recounted past experiences with the Taliban, describing how the group “interfered in everyone’s business.” Simentov told CNN he was arrested four times during the Taliban’s previous rule and that he was beaten while in custody.
The recent US withdrawal and subsequent Taliban takeover triggered an exodus of thousands of people from the country, including foreign nationals, Afghans who had worked with American and British forces and long-persecuted ethnic and religious minorities, such as the Hazaras, who feared they would be killed once the Taliban returned to power.
Despite the danger, Simentov initially refused to leave his home, said Kahana.
His neighbors, however, convinced him that it was not safe, and it if the Taliban didn’t get to him, the Islamist militant group ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) could make an example of him. They had told him people were talking about him and he was going to get killed, Kahana said.
He believed Simentov finally conceded “when he could hear more shooting in the area, and when the Americans left and the airport was closed.”
Kahana runs a US-based organization called GDC Inc., which provides humanitarian diplomacy and consulting for security and logistics in difficult regions of the world. It facilitated the escape of the last Jewish families out of Syria’s Aleppo, and organized buses from Syria into Israel in 2016 so women and children could receive medical check ups.
The original plan was for Kahana’s security team to take Simentov and 18 others and get them out of the country. But when they arrived, there was around 100 other people with him.
In the end, 30 people in addition to Simentov were allowed to go, almost all women and children, Kahana said.
The way out of Afghanistan was “scary and dangerous,” Kahana said. The long journey consisted of sleeping on floors and passing through Taliban checkpoints.
At the first border crossing they were told they could not enter as a group of 31, only three people could cross at a time, Kahana said. Simentov refused for the group to be split up and so they had to drive 14 hours to the next border crossing he said.
A nervous 24 hours followed for Kahana when the group lost communication for a day before they finally arrived to safety on Wednesday evening. He is withholding the name of the country for their safety.
“He saw an opportunity to help his neighbor’s kids by leaving and it was getting too dangerous to stay,” Kahana said of Simentov. “He really saved the kids by taking them with him.”
And of the country’s only Synagogue? Simentov’s neighbors told him they will keep it maintained, Kahana said.
CNN’s Paula Hancocks contributed to this report.