JERUSALEM – For years, Zebulon Simentov branded himself as the “last Jew of Afghanistan,” the sole remnant of a centuries-old community. He charged reporters for interviews and held court in Kabul’s only remaining synagogue. He left the country last month for Istanbul after the Taliban seized power.
Now it appears he was not the last one.
Simentov's distant cousin, Tova Moradi, was born and raised in Kabul and lived there until last week, more than a month after Simentov departed in September. Fearing for their safety, Moradi, her children and nearly two dozen grandchildren fled the country in recent weeks in an escape orchestrated by an Israeli aid group, activists and prominent Jewish philanthropists.
“I loved my country, loved it very much, but had to leave because my children were in danger,” Moradi told The Associated Press from her modest quarters in the Albanian town of Golem, whose beachside resorts have been converted to makeshift homes for some 2,000 Afghan refugees.
Moradi, 83, was one of 10 children born to a Jewish family in Kabul. At age 16, she ran away from home and married a Muslim man. She never converted to Islam, maintained some Jewish traditions, and it was no secret in her neighborhood that she was Jewish.
“She never denied her Judaism, she just got married in order to save her life as you cannot be safe as a young girl in Afghanistan,” Moradi's daughter, Khorshid, told the AP from her home in Canada, where she and three of her siblings moved after the Taliban first seized power in Afghanistan in the 1990s.
Despite friction over her decision to marry outside the faith, Moradi said she stayed in touch with some of her family over the years. Her parents and siblings fled Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1980s. Her parents are buried at Jerusalem’s Har Menuhot cemetery, and many of her surviving siblings and their descendants live in Israel.
But until this week, she had not spoken to some of her sisters in over half a century.
“Yesterday, I saw my sisters, nieces and nephews after around 60 years through a video call. We spoke for hours,” Moradi said. “I was really happy, I saw their children and they met mine.”
“They said ‘it’s like she came back from the grave,'" Khorshid said.
During the first period of Taliban rule, from 1996 until the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, Moradi tried to maintain a low profile. But she risked her life by hiding Rabbi Isaak Levi, one of the few remaining Afghan Jews, from the Taliban.
Levi and Simentov lived together for years in the decrepit synagogue in Kabul but famously despised one another and fought often. The Taliban usually left them alone, but intervened during one such dispute, arresting them, beating them and confiscating the synagogue's ancient Torah scroll, which went missing after the Taliban were driven from power.
“Isaak came to our home during the Taliban and we hid him for a month," Moradi said, as her grandson assisted her in retelling the story. They said when the Taliban came looking for him they said he was a Muslim. She made preparations to smuggle the rabbi out of the country, but his health degraded and he died in 2005. Simentov said he was happy to be rid of him.
Levi's remains were flown to Israel for burial, and Moradi has kept his old passport as a memento.
When the Taliban returned to power in August, weeks before the U.S. completed its withdrawal after 20 years of war, Moradi and her family feared for their lives.
The Taliban have pledged to restore peace and security to the country after decades of conflict, but the more radical Islamic State group targets those who do not share its extreme ideology, including the Taliban themselves.
Khorshid said a relative had met an Orthodox Jewish businessman in Toronto, Joseph Friedberg, some years ago. After the fall of Kabul, he ran into Friedberg and sought help.
“He came to me and said ‘they are going to kill my mother,’” Friedberg said. Friedberg said he reached out to IsraAid, an Israeli non-governmental humanitarian organization.
IsraAid CEO Yotam Polizer said the organization, which has provided relief after disasters such as the Japanese tsunami in 2011 and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, had already successfully extracted the Afghan women’s cycling team and dozens of other Afghans from the country when it got word about Moradi and her family.
He said the two-month-long endeavor to get them out was assisted by Afghan diplomats overseas, Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s office, and Jewish businessmen, including Israeli-Kazakh billionaire Alexander Mashkevich and Israeli-Canadian billionaire Sylvan Adams, who tapped contacts in Israel, Albania, Canada and Tajikistan to help facilitate the family's escape.
Mashkevich said he “involved all my friends, because it was very difficult."
The Israeli president's office declined to comment.
“We are so thankful that they are safe now,” Khorshid said. “For the last two months since the Taliban takeover, I did not sleep at night.”
Now, Moradi and six of her relatives are in Albania, and another 25 relatives made it to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates earlier this week. They hope to secure passage to Canada to reunite with her children who live there.
But she also expressed hope she could visit Israel, see her siblings and pray at the graves of her parents in Jerusalem. Her family in Israel could not be reached for comment.
“We still need for them to reach their final destination,” Polizer said. “We’re worried that they’ll be stuck in limbo.”
Adams, the Israeli-Canadian businessman, said he has appealed to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office and Canada's immigration minister on behalf of Moradi in an effort to secure visas for the family. But efforts were hampered by September’s Canadian election.
“We are in close contact and trying to put the appropriate amount of urgency in describing their plight,” Adams said.
Semini reported from Golem, Albania. Tameem Akhgar, in Islamabad, Pakistan, and in Rahim Faiez in Istanbul, Turkey, contributed to this report.