Though Oded “Ody” Norkin’s expertise lies in bus shuttle transportation, he had no knowledge of how to acquire an ambulance.
Since the beginning of Russia’s war on Ukraine, Oded “Ody” Norkin, 67, of Okemos, has felt the pull of his past. In 1925, his father, Aaron, graduated Odessa Technical School. In 1941, when the Nazis and their allies took siege of Odessa, his father, like many Jews, was deported to work camps in Siberia. His grandparents Sara and Moshe Norkin were murdered in the streets of Odessa.
“My grandparents were not evacuated because they were considered too old, and we lost them,” Norkin said. “So now, this current war hit home for me, and I had to do something.”
With a newly formed network of people that stretches from Michigan to Romania to Ukraine, Norkin, together with $20,000 in donations collected from a Greater Lansing Jewish Federation emergency campaign, has secured two ambulances plus medical equipment, first aid supplies and vital medication for war-ravaged Ukrainians.
Norkin transferred the first ambulance, packed with supplies, to the Jewish community in Odessa in April. As of May 11, the second ambulance began its long journey to the Jewish community in Dnipro.
Norkin, 67, was born in Israel and served in the Israeli Army during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. For the last 16 years, people know him best as vice president of Michigan Flyer, a multi-city transportation service that shuttles travelers to and from the Detroit Metro Airport.
In early March, Norkin called Hendel Weingarten, the rabbi at Chabad House in East Lansing, who suggested he contact Rabbi Avraham Wolff of Chabad in Odessa. They began exchanging text messages March 13.
“I know a thing or two about transportation, and that’s where I wanted to help, with evacuees fleeing Ukraine over the border to Moldova, Romania or Poland,” Norkin said. “When I signed up to volunteer, the network of Chabad rabbis said transportation they had; where they really needed help was to get more ambulances and medicine.”
Though Norkin’s expertise lies in bus shuttle transportation, he had no knowledge of how to acquire an ambulance. Yet, he promised Rabbi Wolff he would come through.
Bound for Romania
By March 14, he was on a plane bound for Romania, traveling with $10,000 in cash of his own savings, with few other plans beyond that. He made his way to Bucharest in a rented nine-passenger van, where he connected with Chabad Rabbi Naftalai Deutsch, who introduced him to a man who could get the job done: Marco Katz.
A native of Romania who has spent time living in the United States and Israel, where he served in the Israeli Army, Katz is vice president of the Zionist Association of Romania and founding director of Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism in Romania.
“Katz wears many hats,” Norkin explained on a spotty phone call with the JN while the two were making a recent three-hour drive between the tiny Romanian border town of Siret, host to many fleeing refugees, back to Bucharest. “He knows everybody and anybody you need, so I was lucky to have been taken under his wing, and so we went to work.”
Since the beginning of the war, Katz has been providing relief efforts, funded by many organizations, including B’nai B’rith International, to Ukrainian refugees who have made it to Siret.
Norkin spent his first week in Romania working with Katz providing relief to refugees in Siret as they stepped up efforts to procure medical supplies, equipment and an ambulance for Odessa. By the second week, he had teamed up with the Joint Distribution Committee in their efforts to transport a few Jewish Ukrainian Jewish families who were stranded in the port city of Mangalia. In his rented van, he was able to transfer nine refugees to Bucharest, where they boarded a chartered flight to Israel.
Norkin said, eventually, Katz recruited a friend who is an ER physician in Bucharest who procured a Mercedes Benz Sprinter ambulance that could be used in Odessa.
They stocked the ambulance with medication, including thousands of dollars of thyroid pills, something that many Ukrainians need as a lingering effect of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Lansing’s Jewish Community Steps Up
While overseas, Norkin got a call from Amy Shapiro, executive director of the Greater Lansing Jewish Federation, who told him that the community was financially backing him by collecting $7,000 in donations to cover the cost of the ambulance, as well as additional $7,000 for medical equipment like dual patient monitors and defibrillators, medicine and first aid supplies.
“As soon as I heard about (Ody’s work in Ukraine), I knew this was something that community would get behind,” Shapiro explained. “Ody is well known and well liked from the years he has operated Michigan Flyer. He is very active at his synagogue, Kehilat Israel. And when I heard about this ambulance project, I knew that would really inspire people to donate because they knew exactly where the money was going.”
Although they had an ambulance in their possession by the end of March, Norkin and Katz still had to contend with red tape from Romanian officials to transfer the ambulance’s ownership title to the Jewish community of Odessa. It took some more connections, plus a few phone calls from Michigan Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin, to seal the deal.
On the night of April 7, Norkin and Katz drove the ambulance from Bucharest to the Isaccea border, crossed the Danube by ferry and arrived in Odessa by early morning. It took 24 hours to drive the 584-km trek between Bucharest and Odessa — a journey that in normal times can be done in under nine hours.
The trip was slow-going and marked by 21 checkpoints by Ukrainian military, who at one point held them for several hours for questioning.
“It was a pretty grueling all-nighter, and we were delayed a lot because of curfews and other humanitarian trucks going across the border,” explained Norkin. “But we had help from our hosts in Odessa because they helped us communicate with the military staff at each crossing point and roadblock. It was a bit challenging to explain why two guys who did not speak Ukrainian were headed to Odessa in the middle of the night and traveling by ambulance.”
By April 8, the ambulance was officially under the ownership of the Tribes of Israel Unity, the umbrella organization of the Jewish Community of Odessa.
After having the satisfaction of handing the ambulance keys over to Rabbi Wolff, Norkin realized that what he thought was a cold he had contracted during his travels turned out to be COVID. Though he wanted to come home after being away for four weeks, a positive test at the airport in Bucharest sent him into quarantine for 10 days.
A Second Mission
Norkin returned to the United States on April 20 only to head back Bucharest on May 2 to continue his work with Katz. By then, Katz had already secured a second ambulance, which will be used for trauma relief for the residents of Dnipro. Once again, the Federation of Greater Lansing is raising money and is also reaching out to Metro Detroit’s Jewish community to participate in the cause. To donate, go to www.jewishfederationlansing.org/ambulance-for-ukraine-relief.
Of this second mission, Norkin explained: “We have put a new set of tires on the ambulance and are procuring more equipment and medical supplies. Now, once again, we are at the mercy of the Romanian government to change over the ownership titles. We are not sure if we are going to drive it all the way there, and maybe someone will meet us halfway.”
When asked if the two had any security or are concerned for their safety on these missions, Norkin and Katz agreed that with their years of training in the Israel Defense Forces, they are the security.
“Before we head out, we do we do a lot of diligent research,” Norkin explained. “We continue to network to ensure that we don’t get ourselves into a situation where we shouldn’t be. But clearly, anytime you go into Ukraine, there’s some risk involved. But we both feel this is something we must do. And though the ambulances are being given to the Jewish communities, the ambulance workers give emergency care to anyone who needs it. Just like the Israeli Magen Adom ambulances that are in Ukraine, the Ukrainian military know it is to help all who are in need. It’s just heartwarming to see the amount of cooperation going on.”