The story of a London rabbi's 9/11 flight is part of a West End musical

Come From Away includes a character based on Rabbi Leivi Sudak, who was among thousands stranded when their flights were grounded


Every year, Rabbi Leivi Sudak, head of Edgware Chabad, travels to New York to pray at the grave of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

September 2001 was no different.  He had planned to fly into New York and out again within 24 hours. However, instead of returning to London, two hours into his flight home, he noticed the American Airlines plane was flying in the wrong direction.

Moments later, the pilot made an announcement he will never forget.

“He said there had been an attack on American soil and they were shutting down air space,” Rabbi Sudak says.

The rabbi was on one of 39 planes diverted to the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, after the Twin Towers were hit.

“We didn’t know what to think at the time. We were shocked, of course, worried and frightened. But it all became clear when we landed. People were starting to talk about what had happened. We couldn’t believe it, it was devastating,” he said.

At the time, Rabbi Sudak had no idea that his experience would be used to create a key character in the Tony Award-winning musical Come From Away, which is about the planes diverted to Gander and the people who landed there.

Following a successful run on Broadway and at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, the musical is coming to London’s West End for its UK premiere at London’s Phoenix Theatre, and the rabbi has been invited by the producers to see the show in which one character is based on the Chabad leader.

“I won’t actually be able to see the play because it has ladies singing in it,” Rabbi Sudak said, “but I will go to the show when it opens in February and sit back stage.

“It is important this story is told.”

His wife and daughter will sit in the audience for him and watch the musical, which was based on the hours of stories the writers, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, heard when they visited Gander on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

For Rabbi Sudak, the days he spent in Gander showed the very best in humanity after what was an “unthinkable” act of terrorism.

“People from the town were so kind,” he recalls. “It was not a rich place, many people were poor, yet they brought blankets, toiletries, pants, food, you name it. They transformed a local school into a dorm for us.”

In the end, nearly 6,700 people landed in Gander, almost doubling its population. Many of those stranded were Jews.

As a man of faith, Rabbi Sudak found himself asking: “Why am I here, what is the reason?”

With no kosher food, he jumped into action and asked Eithne Smith, the coordinator at the school, if he could be taken into town to find provisions.

“I bought new plates, cutlery, rice and I found some oil with a hechsher on it. We set up a kosher kitchen and word started to get around,” he said.

In one of the scenes in the musical, the character based on Rabbi Sudak puts on a Shabbat meal, at which a Tibetan monk is among the 12 or so guests.

The monk had been sitting behind Rabbi Sudak on the plane and had offered him an Israeli chocolate bar.

Unfortunately the snack was not kosher enough for Rabbi Sudak but the kind gesture got the pair talking.

The monk turned out to be a descendant of a well-known Jerusalem family, and when Rabbi Sudak asked him what he wanted for Shabbat, he made two requests.

“First he said he wanted to make his own Kiddush, and then he said he wanted to help make the food, specially requesting we make kugel.”

The rabbi even managed to find the last two bottles of Manischewitz while out shopping for supplies.

Another real-life encounter which features in the show involves Rabbi Sudak’s meeting a local Holocaust survivor who had never told anyone he was Jewish.

“His name was Ed, he was living in Newfoundland and heard I was there and came to see me,” Rabbi Sudak says.

“Ed told me that when he was a child he had been tortured by the Nazis in Germany and had been adopted by a British family. The family were not very nice to him. He said they beat him whenever he or his brother spoke or sang anything Jewish.”

Rabbi Sudak gave Ed a yarmulke, and a tallit, he found out years later that Ed had asked to buried with his Jewish items.

For Rabbi Sudak, having a musical character based on him is “exciting”, but he believed the musical's message was what counts.

“It is a story about something special,” the rabbi says. “What happened in Gander doesn’t happen anywhere. Where else could you find people absolutely welcomed and look after with open arms, without suspicion?”

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