If you got invited to a Passover Seder in Tel Aviv, New York or London you
probably wouldn’t blink twice. But what about Santa Clara, Cuba, Kinshasa, the
Democratic Republic of Congo, Karaganda, Kazakhstan or Cusco, Peru?
Yet as you
sat down to your four glasses of wine and matza, across the world, Jews in
far-flung locations took part in the ancient tradition, some for the first time
in their lives. From Sedarim sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution
Committee (JDC) in former Communist countries to Chabad houses celebrating
Passover with thousands of Israeli backpackers, people are breaking matza in all
corners of the world.
Steve Lipman, a journalist from New York, has spent
every Passover over the past decade leading Sedarim at locations around the
globe, often in former Communist countries where many grew up hiding their
Jewish identity or not knowing about it at all.
“Wherever I’ve gone
almost no one had ever even been to a home Seder,” he said. “I was there more to
teach them how to lead a Seder than to actually lead it... what happens is often
the first night I do the Seder on my own and the second night one of the
veterans does it and I help out.”
The first Passover Seder he led by
himself was in Belgrade, Serbia in 2003.
“The people didn’t have any
background [in Judaism]” he said. “At the most they’d taken a course or seen
someone else [lead a Seder].”
For six years Lipman was sent around the
globe by the JDC, leading Sedarim in Cuba, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Poland and
Romania. He first heard about the program when he was interviewing people for an
article about those who had led a Seder overseas.
“I talked to them,”
Lipman recalls, “and I was so inspired I called my contact at the Joint [JDC]
and I said, ‘you find me a community to lead a Seder, I’ll lead a Seder for you
every year.’” In Belgrade, he led a youth Seder for about 60 high school and
college students. The second night, he walked to a small suburb of the city,
where the entire Jewish community – all 12 of them – had convened for the
“After the Seder, a woman in her 60s came up to me and told me her
story,” Lipman recounts. “She was raised as a non- Jew, and her mother, on her
death bed, said, ‘I’m actually Jewish and you’re Jewish.’ They didn’t want the
kids to have to suffer with this onus of being Jewish.
“SO THE woman
joined the community and her mitzva is she makes these big white knit kippot,
and she gave me one as a gift, as a thank-you gift,” said Lipman. “So every year
for the second half of the Seder I put it on and I tell people her
Over the years Lipman has developed his shtick, as he says, and
comes prepared with plane tickets and visa applications for the group to go on
their “exodus,” as well as toys and prizes for the kids, reading materials,
matza, Passover desserts and always at least a few words of the country’s native
“I want to go to these small out of the way places where nobody
goes to,” Lipman said. “I want to go where nobody goes, that they don’t hear
anything, and for one time a year they can feel important.”
In 2004 he
held a Seder in Santa Clara, Cuba.
“The first night the entire Jewish
community – all 20 people – came to my Seder,” Lipman recalled. He had brought
with him a box of matza made in Jerusalem, and shared it with the group. “There
was this couple there with two young kids, who came up to me after the Seder and
said, ‘Can we have the empty box of matza to hang up as a remembrance of
Jerusalem?’ It’s amazing how many people have such feelings of kedusha
[holiness] to Yerushalayim.”
In 2005 Lipman led the Sedarim in Grodno,
Belarus, aided by two students from Yeshiva University, which was especially
meaningful since it was his grandparents’ hometown.
The next year he
traveled to Karaganda, Kazakhstan for Passover and in 2007 he led a Seder in
Timisoara, Romania, for close to 120 people.
“It’s almost always a bigger
Seder the first night,” Lipman said. “They don’t even know it is two nights
[outside of Israel]. Only the ones who are really dedicated will come the second
But at his Seder in Lublin in 2009, the community was so excited,
that it turned out in full force even the second night.
“It was the first
real communal Seder they had done [in the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva] for 60-70
years,” he said. The yeshiva, which opened in 1930, was occupied during World
War II by the Nazis who burned all the books inside and turned it into their
police headquarters. It was finally returned to the Jewish community in 2003,
and renovated and reopened in 2007.
“The first night about 80 or 90 came
and they had planned for 20 or 30 the second night,” Lipman recalled, “but
everyone asked to come back and they had to start scrambling and preparing more
During the day he went on a walking tour of the city and came
across a small museum of artifacts, which included tiles that had been rescued
from the city’s mikve.
“The guy came up to me and said, ‘Can I give you
one of the tiles as a thank you gift?’ It’s a priceless gift and I had it
But after 2009, Lipman says, the JDC stopped sending
representatives to Sedarim around the globe, so he was on his own.
program itself didn’t end, it just fazed out,” said Michael Geller, media
relations director at JDC. “Because after 20 years of investment in Jewish
communities – particularly in the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe –
when we would offer somebody to come in and run a Seder they would say,
‘Actually, we don’t need that, we have a local rabbi now.’” So while the JDC
still sponsors Sedarim around the world, they’re now run by local community
members, since “part of our work is ensuring self-sufficiency,” Geller
“When the Soviet Union fell and JDC went back into Central and
Eastern Europe, what they realized was the communities needed people to come in
and run these Seders,” he said. “A lot of the time there were Jewish populations
who hadn’t been able to practice Judaism – in some places for 70 years. What
happened was JDC realized there was a need, provided for that need, and over
time that need disappeared because local people were doing it themselves, which
is precisely how our formula works.”
But even without the backing of the
JDC, Lipman knew he wanted to keep bringing his unique brand of Passover to
communities in need of it. In 2009, he led a small group in North Conway, New
Hampshire, organized through friends.
After that he contacted his friend
Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland, and offered his services.
“The next year I did it in Poznan, then Gdansk, and last year in
This year, Lipman was scheduled to host the Seder in Szezcein, a
small town in northwestern Poland.
“Before the war there were were 30,000
or 40,000 Jews there, today there are about 60.”
And next year? Lipman
likes to plan in advance, so it pains him that he doesn’t have his Passover
plans scheduled for 2014 yet.
“I would go anywhere,” he said. “I’d love
to do a Seder in Siberia.
“[Leading the Sedarim] is the highlight of my
life,” he said. “I can’t wait to do it again. It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of
money, but you never know the influence you can have. All the work I do, it’s
And while Lipman is happy to travel the globe looking for a
Seder to lead, many Israeli backpackers find themselves in Thailand, Nepal or
Peru as Passover arrives, and search out a place to read the four
Ultimately, what they find, is a Chabad House.
Bangkok, Thailand, preparations for the Seder begin almost four months in
“By Hanukka time we already start collecting the foods that are
available for Passover,” said Rabbi Nechemya Wilhelm, head of the Chabad House
in Bangkok. While it is hard to predict in advance, Wilhelm said he was
expecting 800 to 1,000 people to come to their Seder.
“We never know
until the last minute,” he said about 10 days before the holiday began, of his
18th Seder in the city. “When we first started, the first Seder we had like 300
people, but then it grew from year to year.” The more than 1,000 people are
almost all Israeli tourists and backpackers who are traveling throughout
“The last two or three years it changed a lot, because it
used to be only young backpackers,” said Wilhelm.
“But the last two years
it has also been many families and elderly people, all kinds of people from all
over the world, especially since Turkey closed down,” he said, referring to the
worsening ties between Ankara in Jerusalem, which have significantly impacted
Israeli tourism there.
“We have another Seder [in Bangkok] ran by Rabbi
[Yosef] Kantor, the chief rabbi of Thailand, and that’s a Seder for the
community. In Bangkok we have about 1,000 Jews, most of them are Americans or
Israelis... for them we run a Seder in English.”
All the matza and wine
is shipped in from Israel, and the Chabad House does a special shechita, or
ritual slaughter, to provide meat for the holiday. “We do a few thousand kilos
of meat, and a few thousand kilos of chicken,” said Wilhelm.
INTERESTING about this Seder is on one side it’s a very big Seder, it’s a
communal Seder, but it’s also a family Seder,” said Wilhelm. He picks one table
to read aloud each part of the Haggada, so “you have 10 to 20 people at every
table reading the part, so everyone can hear them... I run from table to table
and it becomes like a competition between the tables – which tables can read it
out louder,” he said.
“Surprisingly, even when I talk, and of course I do
it without a microphone, everyone can hear... it’s very nice to see people who
are coming and really being part of it and trying to behave the way we should to
be able to run a Seder.”
By contrast, the Sedarim being held throughout
sub- Saharan Africa see relatively few tourists, catering instead to small
communities of expatriates, students and traveling businessmen. Rabbi Shlomo
Bentolila, who is stationed in Kinshasa in the Congo, organized a Seder this
year in his own Chabad House, as well as in Pointe Noire in the Congo; Lagos and
Abuja in Nigeria; Windhoek, Namibia; Accra, Ghana; Malabo, Equatorial Guinea;
and Freetown, Sierra Leone. Groups of Chabad rabbinical students were dispatched
across the continent to coordinate the various Sedarim, as well as stage
matza-baking factories for kids and a day camp in Nigeria.
Peru, where Rabbi and Rebbetzin Ofer and Yael Kripor have their Chabad House,
Passover preparations begin with a mass grape squishing for homemade grape juice
for the four cups at the Seder.
“We make grape juice because it’s crazy
to drink so much wine, and we have problems sometimes [with guests who
overconsume],” said Yael Kripor. “And it’s very expensive... so we decided that
we were going to prepare our own grape juice.” The matza is shipped from New
York, and they shecht all the chickens they need in Cusco.
Kripors also couldn’t predict their final number ahead of the holiday, they
expected at least 1,000 people to join them on Seder night. Ofer Kripor leads
the proceedings, with help from rabbinical students, who “have signs we put up,
when we’re quiet and when we’re singing,” said Yael.
“After the food,
kind of everybody does their own thing, and then we come back together at the
end to sing,” she said. “It’s really a beautiful feeling.”