How Was That Night Different? Bringing Seders Back to the USSR
On the 30th anniversary of Operation Passover, discover how — nearly two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union — JDC helped thousands of Jews celebrate public Passover Seders for the very first time.
By Amir Shaviv - Assistant Executive VP for Special Operations, JDC | March 30, 2020
On the 30th anniversary of Operation Passover, we share this story of how —nearly two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union—JDC helped thousands of Jews celebrate public Passover Seders for the very first time in April 1990, initiating what soon became a wide-ranging array of programs and activities that have made Jewish life thrive in this region in the post-Soviet era.
Today, as JDC ramps up its life-saving efforts to aid vulnerable Jews in various regions of the world who are most affected by the global health crisis, we can take inspiration and pride from rediscovering how this organization overcame all obstacles to bring help and hope to a Jewish population yearning to join Jews the world over in celebrating the Festival of Freedom.
The year 1990 would end up being a hopeful year for the Jews of what was then still the Soviet Union (USSR), but in the early freezing days of January we could not have known that. And the operation we had just set in motion fell somewhere between hallucinatory and impossible: to organize multiple public Passover Seders in scores of Soviet cities, in order to let the so-called “Jews of Silence” know it was time to wake up!
In the Soviet Union? The ‘Evil Empire?’ Where Jews were being arrested for teaching Hebrew, tourists deported for smuggling in a siddur, and celebrating Israel’s Independence Day could cost you five years in prison?
The response to our idea was not unexpected: it’s a 100% non-starter, we were told.
At JDC, that was all we needed to hear—we started planning at once…
Ralph Goldman z”l, then JDC’s CEO Emeritus and the senior leader of our Soviet Union Team, traveled to Moscow and approached the Kremlin, namely Komrad Karchef, the Minister of Cults (yes, that really was the title of the Soviet commissar in charge of religious affairs). Mr. Karchef, surprisingly, ruled that in the spirit of glasnost and perestroika (the new Soviet policy of openness, reform, and restructuring), the Kremlin would not consider JDC’s effort as anti-Soviet action.
(That was how a Soviet commissar says “yes” when he is not sure if it is a safe decision.)
We uttered a sigh of relief. The ‘Evil Empire’ — the one that had expelled JDC 50 years earlier, and implicated us in a fabricated “Doctors Plot” to poison the Kremlin’s leadership — was now allowing “the sinister Joint” into the country again!
But our moment of joy was brief. Suddenly, we were facing challenging questions and insurmountable obstacles in a vast country that we simply did not know. The operation clearly seemed impossible.
“Difficult tasks we complete within days,” commented Ralph; “impossible tasks may take a little longer.”
And there were more than the Seder’s customary Four Questions to answer:
- Where do we hold public Seders in a country without any functioning synagogues or Jewish installations?
- Where do we get enough matzah, kosher wine, bitter herbs, and other Seder needs?
- Where do we get Russian-language Haggadahs?
- Who could conduct a Seder for Jews who, after living under 70 years of oppression, were bereft of nearly all Jewish knowledge?
“In this case, improvisation is the only form of planning,” quipped Ralph. And so improvise we did, in cooperation with our partners in Israel.
We purchased tons of matzah in Israel, along with gallons of kosher wine and mountains of disposable paper plates and utensils. We put together a simple Russian-language Haggadah, suitable for Jews who may never before have attended a Seder. And we trained 22 Israeli couples, whose hearts and minds were aflame with excitement at the idea of reawakening Soviet Jews, bringing them in to act as “Seder leaders” in cities and towns across the USSR.
Yet logistics was still a nightmare.
Arrangements were made with Aeroflot, the infamous Soviet carrier, to fly the precious supplies to Moscow. But when it was time for departure, no plane had arrived at Ben Gurion airport in Lod to pick up the cargo, nor was an explanation offered. Alternative shipping plans had to be made, and quickly.
In the end, an El Al cargo plane flew everything to a warehouse in Cologne, Germany.
From there, the cargo was transported in a caravan of trucks to a ferry waiting in a north German port.
The ferry took the supplies to Helsinki, Finland.
From Helsinki, it was a four-day drive to Moscow, overcoming bureaucratic problems, border crossings, customs officers, and Soviet KGB agents along the way.
Once in Moscow, the supplies had to be distributed to 24 locations throughout the Soviet Union. Each shipment leaving Moscow was a tale of trial and tribulation, until it reached its destination thousands of miles away.
Meanwhile, JDC representatives in the USSR were busy seeking appropriate halls in which to hold the Seders. In the absence of synagogues, difficult choices had to be made to find the right venues. Restaurants, theaters, and community centers, including some regularly used by the local Communist party, were chosen, knowing that the number of participants in each Seder would be determined by the size of the venue selected.
At last, the big night arrived.
In that pre-cell phone and Internet era, it took three more tense days of waiting until reports from all 24 cities reached JDC in New York. But when the cables and faxes poured in, it quickly became apparent that a small miracle had taken place among the awakening “Jews of Silence.”
“We felt as if we were actually celebrating a modern-day Exodus: not from Egypt — from the USSR!”
All of the Seders had been held as planned, with each and every one accommodating far more Jews than expected. People had climbed unto windowsills, sat on balconies, and crowded into the hallways in each locale, fiercely determined to be a part of these momentous events. Tearful eyes, glowing smiles, joyous faces, and singing voices were the hallmarks of every Seder.
“We felt as if we were actually celebrating a modern-day Exodus: not from Egypt — from the USSR!” reported one of the organizers.
Nearly 11,000 Jews took part in JDC’s Operation Passover that night in 1990, 5,000 more than anticipated. After so many years of fear and estrangement, many did not understand most of the rituals, but all were touched by the magic and beauty of the melodies, customs, and songs.
“In retrospect, those were Seders where each of the Four Sons did not know what to ask,” reflected Ralph Goldman afterwards, “but we did what the Haggadah commands us to do: We opened up the gates of knowledge for them.”
And that opening was just the beginning. JDC-supported Jewish Community Centers, grassroots and academic study programs, family retreats, leadership training opportunities, teen groups, and volunteer centers soon followed, enabling tens of thousands of youth and adults to reconnect with their heritage and their community — and proving that, as the Seder leader in Grodno marveled on that night in 1990, this truly was “a world of Jewish identity awakening.”
For a firsthand look at what transpired that night — and the logistics that made it happen — watch excerpts from an inspiring video that is a treasured part of the JDC Archives:
You can also view photos of Passover celebrations through the years in various Jewish communities, or visit archives.jdc.org to discover other holiday treasures — and a world of JDC history.
AmirShaviv, JDC’s Assistant Executive VP for Special Operations, was JDC Headquarters’ point person for the 1990 “Operation Passover.”