Imagine you’re doing a last minute shopping run picking up fruits and vegetables for the seder, when you’re approached by two policemen who take you to the local police station for questioning. Now imagine you’re all of 19
years old, hundreds of miles from home, and preparing a seder for some 200 people who may not participate in any other Jewish activities this year!
Such is the life of Rabbinical student volunteers who spread across Russia to run 40 public sedarim in remote cities with no Rabbinic leadership. Strict laws prohibit foreigners from proselytizing, and unaccustomed to seeing Chassidic Jews in black hats, beards and jackets, policemen have on occasion taken students in for questioning before discovering that they are Russian citizens who are conducting legal religious services.
The program is run by Chabad’s Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, who dispatch 80 students in pairs a few days before the onset of Pesach. Preceding them are shipments of handmade shmurah matzah and machine-made shmurah matzah, along with kosher wine, grape juice, chicken, fish, and other holiday delicacies. Gone are the days when all kosher products needed to be imported from abroad. Thanks to the growing network of Jewish communities in Russia, all of these supplies are produced locally, and shipped to communities across the country. Even cities without student volunteers or with Rabbinic leadership receive thousands of pounds of matzah and other holiday necessities at little or no cost.
Upon arrival, the students will head out to local stores and produce markets to purchase potatoes, horseradish, pots, dishes, cutlery, and tableware. The kitchen will be cleaned and koshered, all the new dishes will be toiveled in a local river, and the boys will set about preparing meals. In between blowtorching sinks, peeling potatoes and grilling beets, the students will visit local Jewish families, lead communal lectures and classes, seek out Jews who don’t yet know about the seder and do numerous outreach activities.
In years past volunteers flew in from Israel, America and other countries. Recently, because of Russia’s strict laws, and the communities’ desire to have Russian speaking volunteers, the volunteers are all Russian citizens.For the most part, the volunteers are students in Chabad’s Yeshivah Gedolah in Moscow, with some younger members of Chabad’s Mesivta program serving as junior assistants. A few newlywed couples from Chabad’s Kolel also serve as volunteers.
Before the volunteers head out, they take part in special seminars delivered by members of the Moscow Beis Din. They are taught (and review) the intricacies of koshering and toiveling, warned about the potential issues that may arise, and even the best method of cooking and serving chicken for such large groups. Students learn how to deftly deal with other unique questions that are sure to arise in these heavily assimilated communities with astronomical rates of intermarriage.
There are close to 170 communities under the Federation umbrella, 45 of which have a Rabbi, and close to 125 which do not. Of those without, about 40 request that students lead a seder. Attendance at each of these 40 sedarim ranges from 50 to 450. In all, some 5,000 people will attend a seder led by the student volunteers. The Federation supplies these sedarim with more than 1,500 chickens, 2,000 gallons of wine and grape juice, and 3,000 pounds of potatoes.
This mammoth undertaking takes a team of Federation workers months to arrange. No expense is spared to ensure every community receives everything they need in a timely manner. “We can’t afford to have a single community receive spoiled chicken. That would ruin the entire Pesach!” says Rabbi Yonatan Feldman, who leads the project. “We have people on our team who go through many a sleepless night ensuring our communities get the highest quality kosher food and the best possible experience.”
A community lay leader serves as a liaison between the volunteers and the community, as well as acting as the point person for the Federation in the weeks and months leading up to Pesach. They will also assist in taking care of unique challenges that may be specific to that city. In one or two cities, for instance, there were threats of anti-Semitic violence, and community leaders arranged bodyguards for the students.
In addition to running sedarim, these young student rabbis will conduct youth programs, senior events and adult education classes. They are always looking out for those who may need further assistance and help from the Jewish community in Moscow during the year, from orphanage placement to numerous other religious and humanitarian services.
Many locals continue studying with the students throughout the year through Skype, WhatsApp, or online group lectures. Students distribute mezuzahs, tefillin, Shabbat candles, Jewish books and other religious paraphernalia.
Despite the difficulty and challenges facing these young students, they are up to the task. “The students we send are carefully selected,” says Rabbi Feldman. “They are deeply devoted to helping out far flung communities and will do whatever they can to bring the light and warmth of Pesach to these special Jews.”
For most of the seder participants, it is one of the few times a year they partake in any sort of Jewish practice or event. Some have no knowledge of Judaism other than the fact that they are Jewish. One pair of volunteers took a taxi to the farmer’s market, and the driver turned out to be Jewish. Despite never having experienced anything Jewish previously, he took them up on their seder invitation and following the holiday began to study about Judaism online. He has now became a leader in that community, helping arrange more frequent Jewish programs.
Many students build relationships with the locals and return to lead sedarim in subsequent years. One such community, who had a student volunteer come for Shabbat a few times, now hired that student as a full time Rabbi!
Dozens of children who participated in youth programs later enrolled in Moscow’s Jewish schools, adults visit the Federation’s vast online library to study more about their heritage, and communities increase the number of holiday programs and Jewish events they run.
Each seder takes months of planning, but its effects last a lifetime.
As early as the 1960s, Rabbi Berel Levy, ob”m, and his wife, Mrs. Thelma Levy, shetichye, made trips to Russia at the behest of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to smuggle in Jewish ritual objects to the local Jews. Tzitzis, tefillin, and sefarim were hidden amongst their belongings and Mrs. Levy was known to sternly warn customs officials that they would be responsible to repack all of her belongings if they rifled through her suitcases! You can read
about their experiences in the recently released book, Kosher Investigator by Dovid Zaklikowski. I’m sure Rabbi Berel Levy would be amazed to see how the kosher market has grown in Russia.