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Around the Jewish World! Young American, Ukrainian Jews Join to Spread Passover Traditions

“And you shall tell your children…” (Exodus 13:8) It is the second night of Passover, and here in Ukraine, it is the children who must tell their parents.

After 75 years of repressive, anti-clerical communism, Jewish tradition has been flipped on its head, with the younger generations carrying the torch of Jewish observance.

In Khmelnitski, a provincial hub in western Ukraine, a blue-on-white banner draped outside the main theater broadcasts the Jewish celebration: “Happy and Kosher Pesach,” it reads in Cyrillic.

Inside the glass and marble edifice, three communal seders are running simultaneously, in separate lobbies on separate floors.

The previous night, rabbis and emissaries of Chabad Lubavitch ran all three. Tonight, three Ukrainian Jewish students and three American students visiting from Israel are running one seder.

At this seder, some 150 locals are gathered in a dimly lit, low-ceilinged hall. The excitement is palpable.

The student teachers nervously take the podium and begin with a very American ice-breaking tactic: instructing the audience to introduce themselves to their neighbors.

It works, and the tension subsides.

With the Ukrainian Jews leading, the students proceed to explain the meaning of the holiday, the seder plate, the candlelighting, the kiddush cup and the matzah.

It goes smoothly, despite minor glitches: Many begin noshing from the seder plates before each item has been explained, for example.

The evening hits its stride with the start of singing and clapping, and the students are thrilled with the results.

“This is how it ought to be,” says 20-year-old Michael Berkenwald of Los Angeles, one of 25 North Americans visiting Ukraine while on a year abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “Once you get the kids engaged, they’ll engage the parents.”

Irina Akselrud also exults.

“I see a lot of people who are really trying to learn, trying to follow,” says the 17-year-old student from the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

The evening has indeed achieved the primary aim of the Hillel Pesach Project: to spread “Jewish joy” to Jews throughout the former Soviet Union, who in most cases have never experienced such joy.

The project is organized by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and is funded by the United Jewish Communities, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the May and Samuel Rudin Family Foundation and the JDC.

The program has bloomed exponentially during its five years.

In 1996, the program trained 60 local Jewish students to lead about 60 seders. This year, it prepped 1,000 students to conduct 500 seders in 350 communities, reaching tens of thousands of Jews.

Long term, the hope is that there will no longer be a need for “communal seder” because enough Jews will know the tradition to lead seders at home.

Even more meaningful, perhaps – and certainly more moving – is the parallel Project Elijah.

This project delivers matzah, Haggadahs and Judaism to the elderly and infirm who can’t make it to the communal seders.

“It is said that Elijah the Prophet visits every Jewish home,” says Rabbi Yossi Goldman, who founded the two projects. “It’s a wonderful way to connect the grandparents, who are so lonely, with the wider Jewish community.”

The polarity between young and old illuminates the revival of Jewish life in Ukraine.

Jewish communities throughout the ex-Communist world are experiencing varying degrees of renaissance, but it is especially dramatic to behold in Ukraine.

Thousands of North American Jews trace their roots to the shtetls and cities of Ukraine. The region produced some of the greatest figures of Jewish history: writers Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Babel, Zionists Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Golda Meir, and the venerated founder of Chasidism, the Ba’al Shem Tov.

It also produced perhaps the worst pre-Nazi genocide of Jews; from 1648 to 1658, as many as 500,000 were slaughtered here. Khmelnitski, in fact, is named for the peasant leader who led the massacre.

During and after the Stalinist tyranny, fealty to any authority, but the Communist Party was viewed as threatening and merited harsh retribution. Most Jews feared that practicing their traditions would cost them their jobs, land them in prison, or worse.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the freedom to emigrate, everyone still in Ukraine seems to have at least one relative in Israel or the United States.

They’ve heard their accounts of life on the exterior. They know that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon expects Jews like them to make aliyah.

Yet they have decided to stay – barring future economic calamity or vicious anti-Semitism – each finding his own personal, professional or emotional connection to his homeland.

Ukraine today boasts Europe’s third largest Jewish population, estimated at 400,000.

In contrast to other parts of Eastern Europe, where Jews generally are concentrated in major cities, Ukrainian Jews are dispersed across the land, more or less as they were a century ago – albeit much diminished by the Holocaust.

Only the oldest generation has any “Jewish memory,” while their middle-aged children, who grew up under communism, are considered “the lost generation.”

For many, their only connection to their Jewishness in Soviet times was the stamp in their identification papers – “Evrei” – or the anti-Semitism sanctioned by the state and dished out on the streets.

Even today, locals say, a kipah-wearing Jew might walk about unmolested in Kiev, but is likely to take some blows in a city like Lvov, the nationalist hotbed in western Ukraine.

One 19-year-old woman, Zhenia Ponomajrenko, said a high school classmate in Kiev told her a few years to “go to Zhid-land,” or Israel. Zhid is a common insult here, translated as “dirty Jew.”

However, members of the younger generation generally are not saddled with the baggage of the past. They appear curious and hungry to learn all that was kept from their parents.

Most do so through Hillels or through Kiev’s 1,300-student International Solomon University, the formal institution of Jewish learning.

Through their experiences at Solomon or Hillel, many young Ukrainian Jews have discovered a calling.

It was at one Hillel seminar that Sasha Granovsky first learned about the plight of the elderly.

“They made me believe that my community needed me,” said Granovsky, a 21-year- old Solomon student.

The students said they had not become “religious,” only newly observant of some Jewish traditions, like lighting Shabbat candles.

Their enthusiasm and commitment did not go unnoticed by the North Americans.

“Our Judaism is handed to us on a silver platter and is at our fingertips,” said Michelle Dardashti, 20, who grew up in Baltimore. “But these people have had to seek it out. And their becoming more Jewish is making the community more Jewish. I just have so much respect for what they’re doing.”

It was out in the provinces that the American students got their real experience of the program.

The North Americans arrived in Kiev, split into teams of three and were matched with trios of Ukrainian Jews. They boarded minivans with driver, translator and bodyguard – just in case – and headed off in different directions.

The countryside alternated between an undulating landscape of potato fields and apple orchards – flourishing in Ukraine’s famed black soil – and the spectacular rolling hills, serpentine rivers and ramshackle villages of the southwestern Bukovina region.

The students were startled by the depth of economic deprivation around them, especially among the elderly.

Most live in crumbling apartments that are dark and dank, with wooden and warped floors, stained walls that are moldy and cracked, and plumbing worthy of the Third World.

The majority of these elderly, who receive pensions ranging from $6 to $20 a month – by way of comparison, a Big Mac, Coke and fries in Kiev costs $2 – depend on JDC-funded welfare dispensed by the local Hesed-Besht charity.

Hesed provides free medication and health care, laundering and ironing, and even such services as watch, television and radio repairs.

Most important, thousands receive monthly parcels of rice, oil, sugar and bouillon, without which they might starve.

All in all, Ukraine’s elderly Jews live out their remaining years in a most undignified manner. Project Elijah provided them a brief respite.

The students came bearing matzah and Haggadahs. The hosts responded with plaintive apologies for not being able to offer food or drink; generous hospitality is a cornerstone of Ukrainian culture.

The students asked about the hosts’ “Jewish memories.” Most recounted vignettes about their childhoods, families, traditions, or Jewish schooling.

It didn’t take much to bring tears.

One man spoke of the odes he wrote to matzah. Another man with no legs recalled the Hebrew he had learned 60 years ago.

A former soccer and weightlifting coach in his 70s, with a single swatch of red hair across his bald pate, burst forth with two Yiddish songs, wiping the tears from his cheeks.

The emotion was even more evident when the students began singing “Mah Nishtanah,” “Dayeinu,” or “Shalom Aleichem.” The hosts either mouthed the words, sang along or smiled enormously.

As the Pesach Project’s Israel coordinator, Esther Abramowitz, noted, it was a way for the visitors to have “instant impact” and “to create Jewish joy and Jewish communication with people with whom you can’t communicate through language.”

When it was over, the hosts were unable to sufficiently express their gratitude.

A 30-year-woman debilitated by illness told the students: “When I was younger, I dreamed of traveling the world. Now the world has come to me.”

A one-legged man who hosted a seder with the only other Jews in his village – his son and grandson – told the visitors, “I dreamt this day would one day come; now it has finally happened.”

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