American and Israeli Jews Teach Russian Jews How to Make a Seder
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American and Israeli Jews Teach Russian Jews How to Make a Seder

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Jennifer Phelps is especially sympathetic when she listens to her Russian counterparts share stories of a suppressed Jewish childhood under Soviet rule. It’s a rather unexpected connectedness for a military kid who spent her 1980s childhood hopping around American air force bases with her parents during the final years of the Cold War.

Phelps, now a 29-year-old Clevelander, was always the lone Jew in school, and her Jewish upbringing never left home.

Her first visit to a synagogue came when she was a junior in college, an experience similar to that of some Jewish students in St. Petersburg.

“I was never able to share it openly, just like the Jews here. I tucked in my Star of David on the military bases. There are so many commonalities between my life and theirs, bound together by oppressive backgrounds.”

Phelps is just one of 18 American and six Israeli young adults on a weeklong Passover visit to Russia’s northern capital, where for the eighth consecutive year a partnership of several North American Jewish federations fosters Jewish learning.

The Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County, Florida, and Israelis from the Safed region, who are linked by a Partnership 2000 affiliation with Palm Beach, came to join in the Pesach Project, a Hillel program that sees hundreds of seders in 27 cities across the former Soviet Union.

The partnership, which includes such year-round programs as medical exchanges, which sends Russian doctors to the United States, involves more than simply giving money. It emphasizes sharing experiences. Federation organizers often find themselves with more worthy applicants than they can handle.

“Word is out,” says Scott Brockman, young leadership division director of the Palm Beach federation.

After two days of training and preparations, the group performed more than 30 seders in a week, flooding Jewish community organizations, the homes of elderly Jews and satellite communities encircling St. Petersburg.

The role of the American and Israeli delegation has drastically changed over the years, illuminating the growth of the Jewish community in Russia. The program was launched when foreigners brought seders to a land that was virtually seder-free, but today seders are shared by two groups equally fluent in Passover traditions.

Russian leaders say two-thirds of their participants are seder veterans.

In fact, most leaders concur that Russians offer a strong knowledge of Passover basics, while the Americans are expert at running more creative seders, as evidenced by the kitschy pipe-cleaner crafts that enliven the festivities.

“We aren’t exactly scholars, but we bring the example of growing up Jewish,” Brockman says.

Phelps, for example, who is an only child, tells her Russian friends how she and her father hunted for the afikomen together. That’s a tradition she plans to maintain in her home.

Nancy Groysman, a 24-year-old auditor from Cleveland, knows a bit about Passover training. As a first- generation American, she helped her parents, who came to Cleveland from Odessa, Ukraine, 26 years ago learn how to make a seder.

“It’s an incredible opportunity to see the realization of stories and photos that I grew up with,” Groysman says. “I’m surprised by the knowledge of the Russians. They’ve been teaching us the best ways to conduct seder.”

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