Grapevine April 2, 2023: Food for thought and more

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu visits a matzah factory in Kfar Chabad in 2014. (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu visits a matzah factory in Kfar Chabad in 2014.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)

Anyone with an email address and/or a telephone has been inundated in recent weeks with maot chittim and kimcha d’Pischa requests. Both are essentially the same – a plea for money to feed the poor on Passover.

These entreaties come not only from organizations and institutions in Israel, but also from America, England and farther afield. In most cases, the petitioners are asking for money to ensure that the needy in their communities have a Passover Seder.

In Lakewood, New Jersey, Tomchei Shabbos is running the most massive Passover campaign ever, due to the high increase both in food prices and in needy Jewish families. There are thousands of Jewish families who cannot afford the most basic Passover products because they have become too expensive, states a notice from Tomchei Shabbos of Lakewood, citing chicken and potatoes as a luxury; meat little more than a distant dream; and matzot as a crushing expense.

Since the eruption of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the majority of requests for funds include provisions for Jewish communities in both Russia and Ukraine. For many years now, billionaire Lev Leviev and other wealthy expatriates of the former Soviet Union have been underwriting the costs of massive supplies of matzah, wine and other products for Jewish communities in all of the FSU. Most of the community Seders in these countries are run by members of Chabad, as are numerous community Seders in Israel. Many of those in Israel are under the auspices of Colel Chabad, which is the country’s most veteran provider of social services, which it has been running continuously since 1788, and is presently under the direction of Rabbi Sholom Duchman.

In Jerusalem, there are Chabad Centers in almost every Jewish neighborhood, and the majority will be hosting Seders this week. Some of these Seders are attended not just by the poor, but also by locals who did not receive an invitation to join a family at home, and by tourists. This is especially so in the case of Chabad of Rehavia, which is directed by Rabbi Yisroel Goldberg and his wife, Shoshi, who are located in the heart of Jerusalem’s hotel and synagogue belt. Their own premises are too small to hold the number of people who attend their Seder, so every year they move to Heichal Shlomo, which is only three doors away, and large enough to accommodate all their guests.

 VOLUNTEERS DISTRIBUTE food packages to needy families in Lod before Passover in 2006. (credit: Moshe Milner/GPO) VOLUNTEERS DISTRIBUTE food packages to needy families in Lod before Passover in 2006. (credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)

■ THE TWO largest Seders in the world, traditionally attended by Israeli backpackers and other tourists, are in Kathmandu in Nepal and Ko Samui in Thailand. Each is attended by somewhere in the range of 3,000 people, give or take, and each is hosted and organized by Chabad. In Kathmandu, Rabbi Chezki Lifshitz and his wife, Chani, have become legends, so much so that Chani Lifshitz was chosen in 2020 to light one of the beacons on Mount Herzl on Independence Day. But she had to retract from accepting the honor after Chabad rabbinical authorities urged her to decline. The Chabad couple hosting and organizing the Seder in Ko Samui are Rabbi Mendel Goldschmidt and his wife, Sara. The logistics, in both cases, defy the imagination. But it’s worth the effort, because at each of these Seders, there is a feeling of togetherness. In recent weeks, speakers from both sides of the national divide have used the expression “we are brothers.” That actually rings true in Kathmandu and Ko Samui – but less so in Israel.

■ THE MAJORITY of demonstration leaders do not trust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which is why the demonstrations are continuing. It’s fairly obvious that this mistrust is also felt in Washington, despite statements made by Netanyahu to the media. Another example of lack of trust relates to the announced dismissal of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Agriculture Minister and former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) director Avi Dichter was quick to state that he would be happy to serve as defense minister. He was reportedly unhappy about his lackluster portfolio. Carmi Gillon, an earlier former head of the Shin Bet who has an extraordinarily impressive pedigree, said in a radio interview that Dichter was simply an opportunist.

■ PLACARDS CARRIED during demonstrations over the past three months featured a variety of slogans and messages – some of them witty, some political and some downright insulting, As there is so much video footage of the demonstrations, it might be worthwhile for television channels to pool their resources to create their 75th anniversary book featuring the best of the placards. One that caught the eye was that which was carried by a regular demonstrator who wrote in huge letters: “Once I wrote books. Today I write placards.” The bearer of that placard is bestselling author Etgar Keret.

■ AMONG THE many Holocaust survivors who attended the inauguration of the new Book of Names at Yad Vashem last week was Rena Quint, a child Holocaust survivor, who came to general public attention last year when she met US President Joe Biden in Jerusalem in July. Not that Quint was exactly anonymous before their meeting. 

A gifted speaker, she is often called upon by Yad Vashem to address visiting groups about her experiences during the war. In fact, Quint is very busy speaking almost daily to groups in person or on Zoom. Now in her mid-80s, she is extremely conscious of the importance of having people listen to Holocaust survivors tell their stories, because the generation of the Holocaust is fading out, and once there are increasingly fewer people who were both witnesses to and victims of Nazi atrocities, the Holocaust will become just another chapter in history. 

But at least in the case of Quint and thousands of other Holocaust survivors, their stories have been documented in essays, books, media reports, videos and on YouTube. Their voices will be heard and their images seen when they are no longer present.

Also attending in an official capacity was fellow child Holocaust survivor Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who is chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, and who, like Quint, was born in Piotrkow, Poland.

Passover on the horizon

In keeping with the nature of the event, and mindful that Passover was on the immediate horizon, Rabbi Lau noted that Moses, who led the Children of Israel to the Promised Land, but was not allowed to enter, is not mentioned even once in the Haggadah. Although his name has come down through the centuries, it was not the name given to him by his parents, but by the daughter of the pharaoh who rescued him from the bulrush when he was a baby. The inference is that people are not always known by their original names, and therefore tracing them can be very difficult.

Also at the event was President Isaac Herzog, who noted that the white pages of the book “call us to remember and safeguard the house (of Israel); to remember that we are all sisters and brothers. We owe it to our sons and daughters and future generations, but also to our mothers and fathers, and all who are inscribed in the Book of Names.”