Celebrating 25 Years of Former Soviet Union Seders

March 31, 2015


Twenty-five years ago, in the spring of 1990, JDC held public Seders in 24 cities across the Soviet Union that collectively attracted 10,000 Jews, and for many was their first Jewish experience in decades.

We spoke to Amir Shaviv, who headed JDC’s “Soviet Union desk” at the time, to learn more about the program, its impact, and its legacy.

Q: How did JDC decide to hold Seders throughout the Soviet Union?
A: We had a clear realization that most Jews were cut off from any kind of Jewish rituals for 50 years, sometimes for 70 years, because the government didn’t encourage it. Somebody here said, “Well, we’re going to make our mark. What if we go and organize public Seders?” Public for the simple reason that people didn’t have the knowledge to do a Seder in their own home — many hadn’t seen a Haggadah in 50 years, some just vaguely remembered a grandfather who used to do it. More than that, it was because of the symbolic reason — it’s not just an act of renewal of Jewish life, and not just a holiday. It’s the holiday of exodus, the holiday of getting to freedom, the holiday where we say, “Next year in Jerusalem.” So it’s a holiday that has a heavy symbolic message by its very nature.

Q: How was the project executed?
A: We teamed up with our partners in the Israeli government at the time, who had various connections in the Soviet Union, and we identified a number of cities where there were Jewish communities that could carry the burden of doing this. We needed to get them the means to do it, because they did not have anything. We needed to send in matzah, we needed to send in wine, we needed to send in all of the other ritual parts. And you’re talking about 24 cities…

The materials were packaged in Israel and flown to Germany. There was no way to send it directly; it had to go through Finland and get trucked by a Soviet trucking company to Moscow first before it could be distributed to the other cities. There was a need to quickly prepare a Haggadah in the Russian language, and the Joint basically created a Haggadah that could be used as text for these Seders.

Q: What were the biggest challenges?
A: It was so difficult that until a week or two before the events themselves, we were unsure they would ever happen. Because in addition to the materials that were sent in, there was a need to send in Seder organizers — Israelis who had the knowledge of how to organize a Seder. We had to get visas for and send in close to 100 individuals who had to be approved by the Soviet Union. The hoops we had to jump through were typical of Soviet bureaucracy at the time, getting permissions, getting bureaucrats to confirm and approve certain things, and then in each particular city where the Seders took place, the local Jews had to get endless permissions to rent a place, to do the event, etc.

Q: What about the program resonated with you most strongly?
A: I think it was the courage of the Jews who attended the Seders. Remember, the Seders happened under a system where it was simultaneously illegal to distribute Jewish material, and people went to jail for teaching or learning Hebrew. The hundreds who came to each Seder were, in a way, taking a serious risk. They didn’t know what the morning after would be, they didn’t know if a week later they would be called to the KGB and punished for participating in an anti-Soviet event, as it could have been easily labeled. If you look at the real heroes of this operation, it’s not necessarily JDC and the Israeli government who cooperated and brought this material — it’s the actual participants, the actual Jews in cities like Grodno and Birobidzhan and Novosibirsk and Riga and Odessa and Kiev, all over. All of these people who came out and celebrated took the most courageous step one can take, knowing that the consequences could have been brutal.

Q: How do these Seders connect with JDC’s work in the former Soviet Union now?
A: That was the spark, the one event that basically changed everything. Even though it lasted only one night, it was the epitome of everything — it was a Jewish holiday, it was in public, not in the hidden privacy of your own home away from the KGB, but with permission of the government, with material and Seder operators sent from Israel, and with the contents of the Haggadah that are clearly anti-dictatorial. The Pharaoh of the time was the Soviet government, and the irony of the text did not escape the Jews who celebrated. It reverberated through the entire Jewish community of the Soviet Union. People talked about it, and it became a symbol of the fact that massive change could happen.

Q: Has JDC operated other Seders like this?
A: I can recall at least two other situations where we used the Seder as a way to invigorate a community and bring people together.

We did something like this in 1989 in Rome when about 14,000 Soviet Jews who were on their way to the United States were stuck there. We rented a big tent in a basketball court in Ladispoli, near Rome, and brought them in. All we had were matzahs, hard-boiled eggs, fennel and a couple of other greens — but we read Haggadahs. And again, that was a symbol for these Jews, taking a group of 14,000 people from all over and telling them, “Folks, you are Jewish, you are people, you’re a nation, and you are together.”

We did something similar in a Seder in Sarajevo in 1993. The city of Sarajevo was under siege, bombed by the Serbs, and JDC trucked in thousands of eggs and matzahs and created — they had a special ceasefire for this — a Seder celebrated during the day, as you could not celebrate it at night for fear of bombings. And again it served as a strong message to everyone that these Jews are alive, they are a nation, and that something unites them with other Jews all over the world.

Q: How do the Seders resonate today?

A: The people who celebrate the Seder in the coming days in Ukraine and in other situations where the future is unclear will derive a lot of strength and hope from the ceremony and the ritual. Often in situations that look dire and desperate the spark that can ignite a sense of pride, a sense of independence, and a sense of nationhood, can be a symbolic spark like celebrating a public Seder. The combination of JDC and its humanitarian help and the strong message of Passover can really perform miracles, giving strength and stamina to a group of Jews that need this encouragement.

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