As I prepare for this Passover in Moscow, I am filled with mixed emotions. It is hard to be away from my family and friends who I have embraced our old traditions with and created new ones together. Plus, the selection of kosher for Passover products is limited to the very basics – matzo, jelly, cheese (not even tomato sauce for matzo pizza), meat, bisili and chocolate. However, there is something amazing about celebrating Passover openly in the Former Soviet Union. Thirteen years ago, when I was studying abroad in Israel, I went with a group of students on a program facilitated by the JDC and Hillel to lead Seders in small communities throughout Ukraine. At that time, in some communities, we were their first exposure to Judaism since the War and it was very emotional for the older people who were flooded with memories from their childhood. In other communities, there were well established schools and education programs that allowed me to communicate with the children in Hebrew. I remember thinking before the trip, why would Jews stay in the FSU when there were so many opportunities to go to Israel. At that time, I began to see that there was a future for Jews. However, after being in Russia for four months in 2011, it is amazing to see what the community has built and to be a part of it. In Moscow, I have my choice of kosher restaurants, Jewish concerts and a variety of cultural and religious activities. The community is able to provide for itself in various ways supporting many schools, community centers and even a health clinic. That isn’t to say there aren’t challenges. I hear stories from my friend Liz who is the JDC fellow here about heartbreaking visits to home bound, elderly Jews. However, the Jewish community is thriving. It may not have all the options that we have practicing Judaism in the States, but there is a whole new cadre of leadership being built who will continue to have a large impact on the diaspora community. Tonight, Michael and I are going to a Chabad community Seder for the English speaking expat community.
I also want to share a few thoughts about Michael’s and my recent trip to Serbia and Bosnia, which is a sharp contrast to life here in Moscow. In terms of Jewish life, it was one of the saddest places I have ever travelled. At one point the community was thriving as Jews initially moved there following the Spanish Inquisition. Pre-WWII, there was an estimated 18,500 throughout the former Yugoslavia. However, more than 80% of the community was killed in the Holocaust. Of those that survived many settled in Israel or left during the wars of the 1990’s. Under 1000 Jews remain in each country and they have no access to kosher food. Bosnia does not have a full time rabbi, but they bring in one for the holidays. Serbia has one full time Rabbi in Belgrade. Throughout the countries we saw many synagogues (see the slide show below), some used as Museums, secular art galleries, another leased out by the Jewish Community to the City for concerts, and only one used as a place of worship. For those of you that have read People of the Book, you know about the Sarajevo Haggadah is one of the oldest Jewish manuscripts in the world. It is believed to have originated in Spain in the 1300’s and is now in the National Museum in Sarajevo, it is considered to be the most valuable book in the world. Even though it was in a glass room, behind lots of glass it was amazing to see and think about the history of the Jews and how we have managed to survive. Later that day, we went to the second largest Jewish cemetery in Europe dating back to the 1600’s. I have never seen a cemetery in such a state of disrepair. It was the front line of the war in the 1990’s as it overlooks the city. Many tombs were cracked with caskets exposed, others were so worn you couldn’t read the inscription and there were tombstones lying everywhere (see the pictures in the slideshow). It made me grateful for all the opportunities I have had and even more impressed at how the Jewish community in Russia has prevailed.
One final note, as Gilad Shalit spends his fourth Pesach in captivity, please remember him at your Seder — as the Fifth Son, who is prevented from joining the Seder.
From Michael and I, we wish you and your family a happy Passover embracing old traditions and creating new memories.