Passover in Poznan

As you tucked in to your matza and four cups of wine, Jews in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Peru, Thailand and Poland were doing the same.

Children working at matza shop in Ukraine 370 (photo credit: JDC)
Children working at matza shop in Ukraine 370
(photo credit: JDC)
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 Seder.
“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 story.”
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 language.
“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 night.”
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 food.”
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 framed.”
But after 2009, Lipman says, the JDC stopped sending representatives to Sedarim around the globe, so he was on his own.
“The 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 said.
“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 Krakow.”
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 worth it.”
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 questions.
Ultimately, what they find, is a Chabad House.
In Bangkok, Thailand, preparations for the Seder begin almost four months in advance.
“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 Southeast Asia.
“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.
“WHAT’S 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.
In Cusco, 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.
While the 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.”