An Archive of Passover Support: Recognizing JDC’s Century-Plus History of Creating Meaningful Passover Celebrations

In this Passover reflection, take a walk through more than 100 years of JDC support for Passover celebrations worldwide.

By Linda Levi - Director of JDC Global Archives | April 18, 2022

JDC volunteers unpack matzah for shipment to Odesa, Ukraine (left image) and JDC staff oversee a warehouse full of matzah destined to be sent to Jewish refugees. Le Blanc-Mesnil, France, c. 1947. Photographer: Al Taylor (right image).

In many ways, JDC’s lifesaving work echoes the story of Passover. For more than a century, JDC has provided vital necessities – like food, medicine, clothing, shelter, and emigration assistance – to Jews fleeing danger. And this year, as the Ukraine conflict rages on, JDC continues this lifesaving mission, delivering aid – including spiritual support – to Jews seeking safety. In this reflection, Linda Levi, Director of the JDC Global Archives, walks us through JDC’s century-plus history of Passover support, and what JDC is doing right now to ensure the most vulnerable have a meaningful holiday celebration.

The Exodus story, told each year on Passover, is a tale of rescue, relief, and renewal. This narrative is echoed throughout the history of JDC, as the organization has continually rescued and aided Jews in distress around the world. 

As early as 1918, JDC provided matzah to Jewish soldiers in the Polish army. Soon, providing free Passover food, matzah flour, and matzah became a JDC mainstay for vulnerable Jews in Iran, Cuba, Ethiopia, and more. 

After World War II, JDC partnered with other relief organizations to provide supplementary food, clothing, equipment, vocational training programs, legal representation, and emigration assistance to survivors in the displaced persons (DP) camps. Holiday assistance came in the form of Passover materials, from wine and matzah to ritual objects. In 1948, JDC distributed a Passover Haggadah whose cover featured a map of Israel and an image of Moses leading the Jewish people into the land of Israel, which expressed the desire of its creators, on the eve of Israel’s birth, that they could soon establish a new life in the Jewish homeland.  

A Haggadah JDC distributed throughout DP camps in 1948.

The JDC Seder Plate also circulated in the DP camps of Europe, which served not only as a functional ritual object but as a symbol of the postwar revival of Jewish life. The 1948 seder plate was produced in the ceramic workshop of JDC for use among DPs and became a symbol of hope for survivors. Made of ceramic with a green glaze, it bears the inscription, “This Year in Jerusalem,” instead of the traditional saying, “Next Year in Jerusalem.” 

A Seder plate produced and distributed by JDC in 1948 for use among DPs.

Meanwhile, in postwar Vienna, JDC distributed holiday supplies, including chicken, oranges, matzah, and wine, to the Viennese Jewish community. 

In addition, JDC recognized the importance of communal seders. Especially for refugees in transit, whose plight mirrored that of the ancient Israelites, the retelling of the Passover story resonated in a powerful way. Historic footage captures two JDC-supported seders in the city of Vienna. The first took place at the Rothschild Transit Camp under the leadership of Chief Rabbi Ernst Israel, while Rabbi Isidor Oehler of Vienna led the second seder, for 700 Jewish Holocaust survivors (many of whom had lost their families). JDC and community officials took part, as did Cantor Morgenstern and his choir from the old Budapest Synagogue. 

JDC made every effort to provide Jewish survivors in DP camps the means to restore their cultural and religious practices. For many children, this was the first opportunity to experience a seder, and to learn the Exodus story, where Jews freed from slavery arrived in Israel, the Promised Land— a story that strongly resonated with their own difficult journey and, for many, the promise of a future in Jerusalem. 

Yet another hallmark in JDC’s history was Operation Passover, which took place in the spring of 1990, the first Passover celebrated after the fall of the Berlin Wall. After seventy years of Communist repression, forcing Jews to practice in secrecy, JDC heroically organized public seders for 10,000 Soviet Jews in the Former Soviet Union, where Jews were able to congregate and proudly assert their Jewish identities. JDC trained young Israeli and American volunteers to lead Seders across the USSR, creating a point of contact and cultural exchange between Israeli, American and Russian Jews.  

Soon after, JDC organized another monumental seder in Sarajevo. After the outbreak of war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in April 1992, the Sarajevo Jewish community appealed to JDC to organize an immediate evacuation, and JDC responded. With the assistance of Bosnian and Herzegovinian Jewish leaders and La Benevolencija, the Sarajevo Jewish community’s cultural and philanthropic organization, JDC began a series of 11 convoys. It was also important for the Sarajevo Jewish populace to perpetuate their 500-year-old community and continue to provide aid to their Christian and Muslim neighbors. Therefore, an interfaith seder functioned as a symbol of support for all those under siege. Present at the seder were the President of Bosnia and JDC’s executive vice-president, Michael Schneider, who journeyed through siege lines to attend. They joined with the heads of three major religious communities and 250 Jewish participants. 

A JDC-sponsored interfaith Passover seder, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, April 1993.

With Passover approaching, JDC continues its century-long legacy of providing holiday support, ensuring that Ukraine’s Jews have what they need to celebrate a meaningful Passover. 

And with Passover approaching, JDC continues this century-long legacy of providing holiday support, ensuring that Ukraine’s Jews have what they need to celebrate a meaningful Passover. This year, JDC will help facilitate Passover seders for refugees and community members across Europe – in Hungary, Poland, Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine – and online seders and holiday activities for children and families. JDC is also helping to coordinate matzah distribution and delivery of supplemental food for elderly, volunteers, and families at risk across the former Soviet Union. In addition, JDC is reissuing its 1992 Russian – Hebrew Haggadah. The Haggadah, which was originally produced in partnership with Scopus Films in Jerusalem, was distributed at JDC-organized communal Passover seders in communities across the region, and today is being used at communal seders for Ukrainian refugees. 

The cover of the newly reprinted Russian – Hebrew Haggadah JDC is distributing to seders for Ukraine refugees.

This year, as we sit down to celebrate Passover, let’s also celebrate the Jewish values that have powered JDC’s lifesaving work for more than a century – and which continue today in Ukraine and around the world. 

Lin­da Levi is the Director of the JDC Global Archives.

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