Operation Seder and Jewish peoplehood

This Passover marks the 20th anniversary of JDC’s Operation Seder.

seder art 298 (photo credit: )
seder art 298
(photo credit: )
This Passover marks the 20th anniversary of a daring and unprecedented operation in the Soviet Union: JDC’s Operation Seder. The Haggada reminds us that “even if we were all wise... we would still have to retell the story of our Exodus.” Here, then, is the story of JDC’s Operation Seder – declassified and told for the first time.
In early 1990, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee employed a small number of dedicated staff who regularly traveled to the Soviet Union, always exploring how JDC could help the Jews of the USSR. Seventy years of communist rule had decimated Jewish life and erased the communal memory of Jewish peoplehood. In a desperate search for a Jewish wake-up call, we believed that only a dramatic feat – like organizing public Seders in Soviet cities – would invigorate dormant Jews and encourage a Jewish awakening.
It was still unlawful then to teach Hebrew then. Jews were jailed for “Zionist subversion,” and “the Joint,” as the KGB called JDC, was a suspicious entity, in the best heritage of Stalin’s dark days.What drove us to carry out this operation? It was our sense of responsibility toward Jews we might never meet and whose names we might never know. We felt a responsibility to strangers who are our brethren, and therefore reached out to them in their hour of need.
The next few weeks were a blur of activity. Partnering with the government of Israel, we had to recreate all Passover items, in constant confrontations with the “pharaoh” authorities in the Kremlin. We printed light-weight Haggadot in Russian (easy to send in with travelers), and we created disposable Seder plates.
All kosher food had to be shipped from outside (ending up in Finland rather than Moscow, so a Soviet transportation company could charge us for trucking the food all the way back). And we had to train young Israeli and American volunteers to lead Seders across the USSR. Everything was accomplished in total secrecy, for publicity might awaken the Kremlin authorities who would then abort Operation Seder.
IN THE pre-Internet stone age of 1990, a few tense days passed until reports from inside the USSR reached us – 26 public Seders were held in 22 cities throughout the Soviet Union, from Leningrad to Novosibirsk. More than 10,000 Jews celebrated Passover together, most for the first time. The Seder-leaders themselves, toughened Israelis and Americans, spoke of powerful emotional feelings that this experience created. “I, a native-born Israeli, saw a nation rise from its dust and ashes and I saw the Jewish nation lives,” wrote one of them.   And what did we, at JDC, glean from this Operation?
We gained an incredible understanding that would guide our mission toawaken Jewish peoplehood in the Soviet Union in years to follow:extending a helping hand to our fellow Jews in need cannot be separatedfrom JDC’s efforts to bolster Jewish peoplehood. Nor can ourexpressions of caring be seen as unrelated to or distinct from programsdesigned to reinforce the ties that bind us.
On the contrary: Beyond their intrinsic value, they are indispensableand represent indivisible parts of what made – and what keeps – theJewish people strong.
Our sense of peoplehood – defined through giving – is a story that mustbe told over and over again, just as we retell the story of our Exodusfrom ancient Egypt.
The writer is executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.