Esther Tiferes Tebeka and her 15 year-old daughter (left) on the American evacuation plane from Wuhan, China. (Esther Tiferes Tebeka)
Esther Tiferes Tebeka and her 15 year-old daughter (left) on the American evacuation plane from Wuhan, China. (Esther Tiferes Tebeka)

In coronavirus quarantine, Jewish Palo Alto woman shares story of evac from Wuhan

It was supposed to be just a normal trip to her hometown of Wuhan.

Esther Tiferes Tebeka, a Jewish Palo Alto resident originally from the Chinese city, flew there along with her daughter at the beginning of the year to visit family.

One month later, the two are currently quarantined at a military base in Southern California to ensure they haven’t contracted the coronavirus that has spawned a global public health crisis and is believed to have originated in Wuhan. Their release is planned for Tuesday, Feb. 11.

“It’s made us stronger,” Tebeka said in a phone interview with J. “It could have been much worse.”

As of this week, the new coronavirus reportedly has killed more than 600 people in China and infected more than 28,000 people worldwide. The World Health Organization announced a global health emergency last week, and airports around the world are now screening incoming travelers.

In California, six individuals had tested positive for the disease, according to reports late in the week.

On Jan. 23, the Chinese government placed Wuhan under quarantine, closing railroads and airports.

Tebeka and her 15-year-old daughter didn’t know when (or if) they were going to be able to get out. Originally, they had planned to fly home in late January.

“I started panicking,” Tebeka said. “I was under a lot of stress. My daughter, I feared for her safety.”

Tebeka, a former news anchor in China who converted to Judaism in 2001, keeps kosher along with the rest of her family. She’s married to Haim Tebeka, a Hasidic Jew, and they have three children.

While trapped in Wuhan, Tebeka said she had some leftover challah and grape juice for her daughter but “was in danger of running out of kosher food.”

As the situation progressed, Tebeka sought help from the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Luckily, she received a message that the U.S. government was planning to evacuate American diplomats and citizens out of Wuhan on several flights.

Tebeka also reached out to her congregation at home — Chabad Palo Alto — for emotional support, talking on the phone with Rabbi Yosef Levin.

“I cried the first second he talked to me,” Tebeka said.

Levin put her in touch with Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, who directs the Chabad in Beijing and helped get her and her daughter on the flight out. After submitting her travel information, Tebeka was notified on Jan. 26 that they were confirmed for the evacuation flight.

The journey to the U.S. in a converted cargo plane wasn’t an easy one, Tebeka said, totaling close to 40 hours. The group of about 230 evacuees first stopped in Anchorage, Alaska, then flew to March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County.

Evacuees at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County stand in the base's courtyard. (Esther Tiferes Tebeka)
Evacuees at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County stand in the base’s courtyard. (Esther Tiferes Tebeka)

At the base, the evacuees were told they would be under quarantine for only three days. Soon, that was extended to two weeks.

As of Friday, Feb. 7, nobody from Tebeka’s group had tested positive for coronavirus.

Tebeka and her daughter are residing in a room that resembles a Quality Inn; she has a hot plate for cooking, a microwave and a minifridge.

The quarantine has been difficult for many reasons, Tebeka said. For one, she and her daughter haven’t been able to see their family (though they have been able to talk over the phone). Plus, there is no Wi-Fi, Tebeka said, so things can get a little boring.

There’s also the fact that kosher food hasn’t been readily available. Tebeka’s husband drove to the base from Palo Alto to drop off some kosher food, but had to return home in short order to look after his other children.

The food situation became so bad, Tebeka said, that she recently ended up reaching out to Rabbi Shmuel Fuss of Chabad of Riverside for help.

The inside of Tebeka's room at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County where she and her daughter are staying in. (Esther Tiferes Tebeka)
The inside of Tebeka’s room at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County where she and her daughter are staying in. (Esther Tiferes Tebeka)

“The goal was to try to make her feel at home,” Fuss said, adding that he and his wife, Tzippy, cooked Shabbat dinner for Tebeka and provided groceries for the week. The military base gave her a cutting board and other utensils. “At the Air Force base, you can celebrate Shabbos wherever you are,” Fuss said. “It’s only a phone call away.”

Tebeka said that she doesn’t blame the military for the lack of kosher food. “We are used to this as observant Jews,” she said. “Food is always a problem.” In fact, Tebeka said she’s “really grateful” for the accommodations so far. She said there are activities set up for kids and a daily 10 a.m. meeting at which updates are given.

Tebeka mentioned two things she’ll do when she gets out of quarantine: Donate protective masks to Beijing and celebrate with her kids and husband back in Palo Alto.

“A good Shabbat meal with my family … can’t wait for that,” Tebeka said.

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler is a J. staff writer and former editorial assistant. You can reach him at gabriel@jweekly.com and follow him on Twitter @ggreschler.