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A Special Passover Story

In keeping with the Jewish principle of arevut, or mutual responsibility, our people have always been there for one another — helping those who do not have the basic necessities to support themselves and joining together to celebrate Passover and other Jewish holidays.

The Passover Seder features a clear call for inclusion – “Let all who are hungry come eat, and all who are yearning come celebrate."

For more than 100 years, our overseas partner, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) has engaged in its own, symbolic Passover Journey – rescuing Jews from danger, providing life-sustaining support for those in need, nurturing Jewish life, and rebuilding and strengthening Jewish communities across the decades and around the globe. Since the 1920s, JDC has sponsored Seders and delivered Passover supplies and boxes to needy Jewish communities around the world.

This year, as we prepare to sit down with family and friends at our own seder tables, we invite you to read about a very special seder that took place – thanks to JDC – in the Former Soviet Union in 1990.

How Was that Night Different?
Operation Seder: When thousands of Jews celebrated public Seders throughout the USSR for the first time in history
by Amir Shaviv, JDC

The year 1990 would end up being a hopeful year for the Jews of 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 jail?

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 approached the Kremlin, namely Komrad Karchef, the Minister of Cults (yes, that really was the title of the commissar in charge of religious affairs). Mr. Karchef, surprisingly, ruled that in the spirit of perestroika (the Soviet policy of reform and restructuring), the Kremlin would not consider JDC's effort an anti—Soviet action.

That was how a Soviet commissar says "yes".

We uttered a sigh of relief. The Evil Empire—the one that had expelled JDC 50 years earlier, implicating us in a fabricated "Doctors Plot" to poison the Kremlin's leadership—was now allowing "the sinister Joint" in 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 50 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 disposable paper plates and utensils. We put together a simple Russian-language Haggadah, suitable for Jews who may have never before 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 flown into 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 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."

All of the Seders had been held as planned, with each and every one accommodating far more Jews than expected. People had climbed onto 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.

More than 10,000 Jews took part in JDC's Operation Seder that night. 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 soon after, within days, the gates of aliyah opened up as well. Exodus 1990, which began with matzah and Passover wine, continued with more than one million Jews exiting the USSR to live new lives in freedom.

Amir Shaviv, JDC's Assistant Executive VP for Special Operations, was JDC Headquarters' point person for the 1990 "Operation Seder."

Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City is proud to strongly support JDC through a "core partner" overseas allocation. Click here to learn more about our partnership.