(CNN) – The last known member of Afghanistan’s Jewish community left the country on Friday and took 30 other people with him, including 28 women and children, on a five-day mission to safety, according to the group that carried out the evacuation.
Zebulon Simentov lived and maintained the only synagogue in Kabul, surviving in part thanks to donations from abroad. 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 previous Taliban rule in the country between 1996 and 2001.
Simentov and 30 others traveled by truck over Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain and negotiated with multiple Taliban checkpoints before entering “a neighboring country” on Monday, the Jewish New Year Rosh Hashana, said Moti Kahana, a businessman. and Israeli-American philanthropist who arranged his escape.
Simentov is credited with helping save dozens of children by refusing to leave them behind in Afghanistan, Kahana said.
Historical evidence suggests that Afghanistan was once home to a sizeable Jewish community. It reached 40,000 in the mid-1800s and began to decline around 1870 with the passage of anti-Jewish measures, according to the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, a nonprofit group. Most of Afghanistan’s remaining Jews left after the creation of Israel in 1948 and then in 1979 after the Soviet invasion, the group said.
Simentov’s status as the last remaining Jew in Afghanistan has received wide media attention in recent decades, with numerous reports detailing his persistent refusal to leave the country, even after his wife and children moved. to Israel.
During an interview with CNN in 2010, Simentov recounted past experiences with the Taliban and described how the group “interfered in everyone’s business.” Simentov told CNN that he was arrested four times during the previous Taliban rule and that he was beaten while in custody.
The recent US withdrawal and subsequent takeover by the Taliban led to an exodus of thousands of people from the country, including foreign nationals, Afghans who had worked with US and British forces, and long-persecuted ethnic and religious minorities, such as the Hazaras, who feared he would be assassinated once the Taliban returned to power.
Despite the danger, Simentov initially refused to leave his home, Kahana said.
However, his neighbors convinced him that it was not safe, and that if the Taliban did not reach him, the Islamist group ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) could use him to set an example. They had told him that people were talking about him and that they were going to kill him, Kahana said.
He believed Simentov finally relented “when he could hear more gunfire 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 security and logistics consulting in difficult regions of the world. He facilitated the escape of the last Jewish families from Aleppo into Syria, and organized buses from Syria to Israel in 2016 so that women and children could receive medical check-ups.
The original plan was for Kahana’s security team to take Simentov and 18 other people out of the country. But when they arrived, there were about 100 more people with him.
In the end, 30 people besides Simentov were allowed to go, almost all women and children, Kahana said.
The departure from Afghanistan was “terrifying and dangerous,” Kahana said. The long journey consisted of sleeping on the ground and passing through Taliban checkpoints.
At the first border crossing they were told that they could not enter as a group of 31, only three people could cross at a time, Kahana said. Simentov refused to let the group part, so they had to drive 14 hours to the next border crossing, he said.
It followed a nervous 24 hours for Kahana when the group lost communication for a day before they finally reached safety on Wednesday night. You are hiding the name of the country for your safety.
“He saw the opportunity to help his neighbor’s children by leaving and it was becoming too dangerous to stay,” Kahana said of Simentov. “He really saved the kids by taking them with him.”
And the only synagogue in the country? Simentov’s neighbors told her they will continue to support her, Kahana said.
CNN’s Paula Hancocks contributed to this report.