For Jews fleeing Ukraine, Passover takes on new meaning – Daily News

By DEEPA BHARATH

“Good morning! Happy morning!” Rabbi Avraham Wolff exclaimed, with a big smile, as he entered the Chabad synagogue in Odessa one recent morning.

Russian missiles had just hit an oil refinery in the Ukrainian city, turning the skies charcoal gray. Hundreds of people lined up outside his synagogue hoping to receive a kilo of matzah each for their Passover dinner tables. Unleavened flatbread, essential to the ritual meal known as the Seder, is now hard to come by in war-torn Ukraine amid war and crippling food shortages.

But the rabbi wanted no challenge to bring him down – whether it was the lack of matzah or the fact that he was missing his wife and children who had fled the Black Sea port for Berlin a few days ago.

“I need to smile for my community,” Wolff said. “We need humor. We need hope.

Tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews have fled while around 80% remain in Ukraine, according to estimates by Chabad, one of the largest Hasidic Jewish organizations in the world. Both inside and outside Ukraine, a nation steeped in Jewish history and heritage, people are preparing to celebrate Passover, which begins at sundown on April 15. It was a challenge, to say the least.

The holiday marks the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in ancient Egypt and their exodus under the leadership of Moses. History takes on special meaning for thousands of Ukrainian Jewish refugees who experience dramatic history in real time.

Chabad, which has deep roots and an extensive network in Ukraine, and other groups such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Federations of North America, have stepped up to help Ukrainian Jews celebrate the Passover wherever they sought refuge. In Ukraine, Chabad is planning 52 public Seders hosting about 9,000 people.

In Odessa, Wolff is preparing to hold two large Seders – one early evening at the Chabad Synagogue for families with young children and a later Seder at a hotel where attendees can stay overnight, observing a blanket. 9 p.m. fire.

He waved in trucks loaded with Passover supplies – matzah from Israel, milk from France, meat from Britain.

“We may not all be together, but it will be an unforgettable Passover,” Wolff said. “This year we are celebrating as one big Jewish family around the world.”

JDC, which evacuated over 11,600 Jews from Ukraine, shipped over 2 tons of matzah, over 400 bottles of grape juice and over 700 pounds of kosher Passover food for refugees in Poland, Moldova , Hungary and Romania, said Chen Tzuk, director of the organization’s operations in Europe, Asia and Africa. In Ukraine, their social service centers and volunteer corps distribute nearly 16 tons of matzah to elderly Jews and families in need, she said.

“Passover is something familiar and fundamental to the Jewish people,” Tzuk said. “For refugees who have left everything behind, it is important to be able to celebrate this holiday with honor and dignity.

JDC organizes in-person Seders in countries bordering Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe, she said, and facilitates online Seders where it is too dangerous to gather in person.

The Jewish Federations of North America set up a volunteer center to support refugees fleeing Ukraine; it is a partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel, the JDC and IsraAID. Russian-speaking volunteers, like Alina Spaulding, will help organize a Seder for 100 refugees at a hotel in Budapest.

Spaulding, a resident of Greensboro, North Carolina, fled Kharkiv, Ukraine at age 5 in the 1970s with her parents. She said the war had rekindled strong ties with Ukraine.

“My mom showed me a picture of me with my grandfather on a recently bombed street,” Spaulding said. “We talked about the University of Kharkiv where my mother and father went, which was also affected. Suddenly everything seemed so personal.

Spaulding thinks spending Passover with refugees will be “an unforgettable experience.”

“Part of the magic of Passover is finding your own story,” she said. “We are in the midst of a modern-day exodus. I can’t even imagine the stories I will hear.

Celebrating a holiday can give people a burst of hope and happiness, even in difficult situations, said Rabbi Jacob Biderman, who leads Chabad activities across Austria, including a center in Vienna that houses around 800 Ukrainian Jews. Days after the refugees reached his center, Biderman led a joyous celebration of Purim, a festival commemorating the deliverance of Jews from a planned massacre in ancient Persia.

“The look on their faces changed from sadness to joy… Their eyes lit up,” Biderman said. “It gave them a sense of normalcy, dignity and the belief that their spiritual life is something no one can take away from them.”

This fueled Biderman’s determination to provide a memorable Passover Seder for the refugees.

Dr. Yaacov Gaissinovitch, his wife, Elizabeth, and their three children – aged 11, 8 and 4 – will be part of this celebration. They fled the Ukrainian city of Dnipro by car on Friday March 4. Gaissinovitch, a urologist and mohel who performs the Jewish rite of circumcision, said it hurts him, as an observant Jew, to conduct Shabbat – an act forbidden on the day of rest and prayer, except when lives are stake.

“I drove nonstop for 12 hours in Moldova to save us all,” he said. “We sang all the Shabbat songs in the car. It was very, very hard. »

In Dnipro, Gaissinovitch had his offices in the sprawling Menorah Center, which serves as the center of Jewish life, housing a synagogue, shops, restaurants, museums and the office of the city’s chief rabbi.

After a month of being cut off from everything familiar, Chabad Vienna has been a blessing, Gaissinovitch said.

“We were welcomed here very warmly,” he said. “After being disconnected for days, the children could see that our life had not stopped.”

A similar community at Berlin’s Chabad Center is home to around 1,000 refugees, including the wife and children of Rabbi Avraham Wolff of Odessa. The center plans to host eight seders across the city and has distributed matzah and other foods to community members. Refugees, including 120 children from an Odessa orphanage who arrived in Berlin with Wolff’s family, distributed the items to locals, said Yehuda Teichtal, Berlin’s chief rabbi.

“For me, it’s extremely touching,” he said. “That the people who benefit from it can give and not be considered victims. It is stimulating and energizing.

As they prepare for Passover, Teichtal, Biderman and Wolff said they were inspired by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as the Rebbe of Lubavitch, who was one of Judaism’s most influential world leaders. modern times. April 5 marked the Rebbe’s 120th birthday, a special number in Jewish tradition.

“The Rebbe has built a strong base (in Ukraine) so that we can do what we are doing now,” Wolff said.

Schneerson grew up in Ukraine during a difficult time in the former Soviet Union, Teichtal said.

“Despite all the darkness, his goal was selflessness, devotion, love for all humanity, and unwavering faith that we will overcome,” Teichtal said.

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Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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