Let our people rejoice

Sending the students back to their communities to lead Passover Seders proved to be one of the most important achievements of Hillel in the FSU.

Soviet Jews and Jewish traditions  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Soviet Jews and Jewish traditions
(photo credit: REUTERS)
How do you transform and give meaning to the lives of thousands of Jews? In the FSU the answer to this question is the “Hillel Pesach Project,” now celebrating its 22nd year.
During the seven decades of Communist rule, the Passover holiday held great significance for the Jews of the Soviet Union. The themes of enslavement and freedom, family and community resonated particularly in times of stress and persecution.
With the dissolution of the Communist system, world Jewry joined the effort to support and guide the newly freed Jews of the Soviet Union. Well established organizations that had worked clandestinely during the Communist period on behalf of Soviet Jews, such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Jewish Agency for Israel (JA FI), and the Israeli government through Lishkat HaKesher were joined by other philanthropic groups in sending emissaries and supplies to respond to Soviet Jews’ enormous social, educational and religious needs.
Holidays unknown to the majority of Jews during the Soviet period were introduced to thousands of Jews who were eager to touch, feel and reconnect with their long-lost and denied heritage. Rabbis, yeshiva students and others familiar with Jewish tradition were sent from Israel and the West to conduct holiday programs.
Home-centered rituals and observances, such as Shabbat, Hanukka and Passover were understandably unknown to most Jews and thus, initially and for most FSU Jews even today, these holidays took on the form of communal celebrations.
The visiting educators and religious leaders brought Jews together in restaurants, rented halls, and public recreation centers to celebrate the festivals.
By 1996 most foreign charitable organizations were experiencing difficulties raising funds in support of FSU programs not directly connected with emergency social needs. Feeding the hungry and taking care of the elderly became the major priority. Precious limited funds could not justifiably be diverted from these pressing social and economic needs to fund the travel costs of a Seder emissary. In light of this situation, JDC officials contacted me to inquire whether Hillel could be of assistance.
Hillel’s resources in North America, Israel and the FSU at that time were stretched to the limit and it was unrealistic for us to consider funding a Passover emissary program.
I suggested instead piloting a program that would train and empower local Hillel student activists to conduct Seders in their own communities. I could not anticipate at the time the power and impact of this idea on the course of the history of Hillel in the FSU and the community. We were able to find additional funds for this purpose and invited 60 students in March 1996 to St. Petersburg for four days of Passover Seder training. Of the 60 who participated in the Seder training, only one had ever been to a Seder before; for the rest, this was to be their first Passover experience.
Sending the students back to their communities to lead Passover Seders proved to be one of the most important achievements of Hillel in the FSU. The Pesach Project, as it was now called, touched the lives of thousands of Jews in a very deep and significant way. Equipped with their newly acquired knowledge, Seder plates, wine cups, matza, Haggadot, these students led multiple Seders throughout their communities.
I instructed the students to conduct Seders whenever and wherever they find themselves during Passover. Traditionally Seders are held only on the first and second nights of Passover, but I felt that these were extraordinary times in the FSU, which required “out of the box” solutions that might not always square with halachic (Jewish law) norms.
“Conduct Seders in the mornings, afternoons and evenings throughout the week of Passover,” I urged the students, “Bring the joy and meaning of Passover to the maximum number of Jews” – and they did.
The Pesach Project grew exponentially every year as hundreds of Hillel students conducted Seders in communities large and small throughout the FSU. In those early years teams of students traveling in rented vans, or “Hillel Pesach mobiles,” filled with matza, wine, Haggadot and Passover goodies visited far-flung communities and almost forgotten shtetls. They conducted Seders, visited schools and the elderly bringing with them the joy and message of Passover. More importantly, they represent a living proof of a Jewish renaissance and hope for the future. Am Yisrael Chai! As the Jewish world prepares to celebrate Passover hundreds of FSU Hillel students are ready to lead Seders in their 20 FSU Hillel-based communities and throughout Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia and Uzbekistan.
Let our people rejoice!
The author is a rabbi, the Hillel International director of global expansion and the founder of Hillel in the FSU.