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Across the Former Soviet Union Ukrainian Jews Have Seder Choices, but Do They Still Need Outside Hel


Jews in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov had a smorgasbord of seder choices this Passover. Feeling more comfortable with the Orthodox tradition? Local chapters of Chabad and the Orthodox Union offered holiday meals and ceremonies to help local Jews relive the enslavement and Exodus from Egypt.

At home with a liberal reading of the holiday? Choose one of the seders organized by the Reform community.

Want a social mixer and a traditional meal with a younger crowd? Hillel has something to offer for the occasion.

One thing all these seders had in common is that all were led or co-led by foreign guests, usually rabbinical students from the United States and Israel, who passed on spending the holiday with their families to help make Passover more meaningful for Ukrainian Jews.

In recent years, foreign students leading seders have become a tradition in every corner of the vast former Soviet Union.

But in Ukrainian Jewish communities served by rabbis of their own — which also benefit from a network of communal institutions — some Jews are beginning to think they’ve outgrown the need for such visits.

Foreign students came to Ukraine to help locals “be a part of a Jewish extended family and to support them,” said Sara Sapadin, a U.S. rabbinical student at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College Jerusalem campus.

To some of the foreign students, the visits carry extra meaning since their own ancestors hail from those lands.

One of the American students, Emily Dunn from HUC, took the opportunity to visit with a relative, Esfira Rabinovich, 87, who still lives in the small town of Talnoe, Ukraine.

This spring, the Reform movement sent 53 students, cantors and educators to lead seders in communities across Ukraine.

Other organizations also sent sizeable groups: Chabad sent 96 rabbinical students from Israel, the Orthodox Union sent 11 students and Hillel sent nine Americans.

Some of those attending seders this spring said they weren’t happy with Passover ceremonies led by foreigners. Some mentioned the difficulties of following the English-Russian translations. Others suggested that the money spent to bring foreign guests might have been better spent on local groups.

“We spend much time interpreting back and forth, and before the students come to visit, they should get more advice from the local people as to what our community really needs today,” said a Kharkov Jewish leader who asked not to be identified for this article.

“We have learned a lot ourselves in recent years,” he added. “And it looks like these students need such visits more than us.”

But not all in the community agree.

“Hillel students who come today to Ukraine do not come to teach us how to lead seders anymore,” said Yulia Pototskaya, director of the Kharkov Hillel group. “They know we can do it ourselves. But they come to conduct seders with us as partners.”

Aleksandr Gaidar, executive director of the Association of Reform Jewish Congregations in Ukraine, said, “Of course we can lead seders without Americans in our congregations, but when we are together, our seders have a deeper meaning.”

One Jewish leader said he believes the presence of foreign rabbinical students is not a sign of disrespect for local communities. On the contrary, said Rabbi Shlomo Asraf, the O.U. leader in Kharkov, these students, many of whom are more knowledgeable about tradition than locals, can teach Ukrainian Jews how to “better experience the seder and Judaism.”

But many local Jewish leaders feel that foreign groups should focus on smaller communities that don’t have rabbis.

“Such visits help us forge better ties with foreign communities and show them what we can do,” said Rabbi Misha Kapustin, leader of the Kharkov Reform congregation. “But I don’t see much sense in sending nine students to lead seders in Kharkov Hillel, where local students” can run the seders.

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