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Holiday Feature: Public Seders, Once Nostalgic, Propel Eastern European Jewry

March 8, 1999
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Amir Shaviv grew up in Israel as an only child in a small family and often celebrated Passover with a brief — and uncomfortable – – evening he describes as “dinner-cum-Haggadah.”

It was only when he began working for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and began traveling to needy, far-flung and often oppressed Jewish communities in Eastern Europe that he discovered what he calls the “miracle” of the community seder.

“I never realized what powerful religious and cultural energy can be produced as a result of a `nuclear Jewish chain reaction’ such as a community seder,” Shaviv, the JDC’s assistant executive vice president for special operations, said in a recent interview.

Under communism, seders conducted for the Jewish community, rather than private seders at home, became the norm in many parts of Eastern Europe.

This was because of the weakness of Jewish communal life, the small number of Jews, the high rate of intermarriage and the often harsh constraints Communist authorities placed on all aspects of Jewish life.

Community seders, with matzah, kosher wine and other supplies often brought in by the JDC, predominantly attracted older Jews with memories of life before the Holocaust.

“They were not very seder-like, but rather Passover celebrations with traditional foods,” said Jonah Bookstein, the Poland director of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which sponsors Jewish educational programs in Eastern and Central Europe. “Often, one man would read the Haggadah very quickly, while everyone else would shmooze and eat.”

With the collapse of communism, however, the nature of community seders has changed radically — increasingly, they serve as focal points for a renewal of Jewish life, identity and communal spirit among emerging Jewish communities across the region.

“A community seder is, to the individual Jew, a mental and cultural spa,” said the New York-based Shaviv. “True, it lasts only a few hours, but it has the cultural rejuvenating effect on the soul that a good spa has on one’s body. In both cases one comes out with a sense of new energy, and a clearer understanding of his place in the Jewish world, past and present.”

He recalled, for example, the impact of a 1989 community seder in Ladispoli, Italy, held by Russian Jews awaiting permission to travel to the United States.

“Hundreds of them, in a large tent pitched on a soccer field, were transformed in the course of the evening from a group of sad, hopeless individuals in limbo into a proud People of Israel,” he said.

“Suddenly, they realized that they were part of a long tradition, a wide family and a deep support system — all new emotional dimensions to them. It was not the food nor the Jewish background they had brought with them — which was thinner than the matzah they were eating — that created the transformation – – but the sudden sense of community and togetherness.”

He recalled another community seder, four years later, that had just as dramatic implications. He was in Zagreb with a room full of refugees from Sarajevo and the war in Bosnia.

“I realized that most of them could write their own Haggadah — as dramatic as the old story — detailing their personal exodus from Bosnia. On that Pesach night, their lives were at a crossroad: no home to return to, no place to go to.

“Yet the gathering around the seder table created an instant sense of power and hope,” he said. “We were all together, we had encountered disasters in our Jewish history — thus we could win again.”

Across Eastern and Central Europe, where emerging Jews and reviving communities must consciously learn traditions that are usually passed on in the family, community seders bring together Jews of all ages, from Holocaust survivors to infants.

In Poland, said Jewish leader Stanislaw Krajewski, hundreds of people now attend community seders in Warsaw and a number of other Polish cities, including Krakow, Lodz, Wroclaw, Gdansk and elsewhere.

“The number of participants gets higher” each year, Krajewski said. “I believe that this is one of the best measures of the revival” of Polish Judaism.

Some of these Polish seders are organized by the local Jewish communal organizations, aided by the JDC, and others are organized by the Lauder oundation. Sometimes there is joint sponsorship.

In Warsaw alone last year, 250 people attended the Lauder foundation’s first seder and 200 attended the groups’s second seder. Both were held in a ballroom of a downtown hotel, and at the same time the Jewish community organization held another community seder at the community building nearby.

The scene is similar in other countries in the region.

Only a few mostly elderly, people attended the community seder in Bratislava under Communist rule said Eva Salnerova, wife of the current president of the Jewish community of Bratislava, Slovakia, a country where only about 3,000 Jews live.

Now, however, Jews have a choice of two community seders there.

One is organized and led by Chabad Rabbi Baruch Myers, who serves as the Bratislava rabbi.

At the same time, about 50 people attend another, more informal, community seder organized by the Bratislava Jewish community.

Ironically, even though community seders in post-Communist countries are attracting increasing numbers, there is a parallel trend, particularly in certain places, for people to celebrate the seder at home with family and friends.

As in the United States, some people will also hold a seder at home on one night and attend the community seder on the other night.

In a sense, said Krajewski, the growing number of smaller family seders is a measure of the normalization of Jewish life. Not only is it much easier for individuals to purchase kosher-for-Passover supplies, but local Jews are more confident in their own ability to conduct a seder.

“This year,” said the Lauder foundation’s Bookstein, “we are organizing community seders — and also teaching people to lead their own.”

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