With passports in hand and suitcases filled with matzah and kosher meat, 700 Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical students are making a mass exodus from their yeshivas and teaching positions to bring Passover to the far corners of the world.
Early this week, 172 American rabbinical students boarded jets for Wyoming, Ghana, Bolivia, Croatia, Peru, Nepal, Republic of Congo, and Cypress. Aussie Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical students will be bringing Passover to the Outback, New Zealand. Chabad rabbis in training from Israel will be crisscrossing China, Thailand, Laos. In Russia, Ukraine and 15 countries in the region, hundreds of rabbinical students will be hosting Passover Seders across 11 time zones.
Traveling thousands of miles to bring Passover experiences to Jews in remote regions of the world is a Chabad-Lubavitch tradition that is funded to the tune of $750,000 in airline tickets and Seder seed money from Merkos Linyunei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad. Seder leaders in the former Soviet region, under the umbrella of the Federation of Jewish Communities, are sponsored by the Ohr Avner Foundation. True dollar amounts spent on bringing Passover to the world increase exponentially when outlays from individual Chabad representatives for food, lodging, car rental, Seder site rentals are factored in. The effort, involving numerous logistics and oversight under the direction of Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Vice Chairman of Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch, grows from year to year, with various changes and additions in locations, depending on the needs of each respective community.
“We literally cover the map,” says Rabbi Kotlarsky, explaining that a tremendous amount of planning and coordinating, in addition to human and financial resources, are invested in this project. “Our rabbinical students are trained to set up a Seder wherever they are sent, and to work with each respective community to effect the most positive experience,”he says.
So as hundreds of young representatives bring their years of yeshiva training and youthful energy to the bulk of Chabad’s thousands of Seder locations in hundreds of cities worldwide, they will be bringing relief to worried mothers like Seroya Golpanian of Reseda, CA.
Golpanian’s husband is on dialysis twice a week. She works late into the night as a hairdresser and at the family’s dry cleaning business. And she worried about her son, Pejman, who is in his first year of medical school in Grenada. “For Rosh Hashannah, Chabad came there,” said Seroya. “But I didn’t know that they would be there for Passover.” Chabad of Puerto Rico has been overseeing Passover programs on Grenada for years, and this year there are Seders on the islands of St. Kitts and St. Martin. “I am so happy Pejman won’t miss Passover.”
“The first thing we read from the Hagaddah as we begin the Seder,” says Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, Chairman of the Lubavitch educational and social services divisions, “is an invitation to anyone in need to come join us at our table. It is an expression of responsibility for our fellow Jews, without which we cannot possibly achieve redemption.”
Rabbi Krinsky recalled the words of the Rebbe, about Passover being an opportunity to transcend our limitations to spiritual growth. “Passover is a celebration of Jewish harmony and freedom, and these cannot be achieved alone. We must affect the larger family around us if we are to celebrate true freedom.”
One of the young men committed to the aims of Chabad Merkos Shlichus, as the project is known, Shmuel Konikov, 24, travels so often he keeps a flight bag ready. On break from teaching at a yeshiva in the New York Catskill mountain region, he traveled to California as part of a team that brought the multimedia “Exodus” experience to 3,500 children and teens. Monday afternoon, Konikov is to board a flight for Germany, where he will be spending Passover in a town near Leipzig, one of this year’s newest Seder locations. Merkos Shlichus Seders are also debuting in outlying cities in Poland and Germany that haven’t seen organized Jewish rituals performed on a mass scale since the Holocaust. Konikov expects his fluent Yiddish will come in handy to explain the intricacies of Passover to German-speaking Jews there.
Duties vary for Merkos Shlichus volunteers. Most are sent to cities where Chabad has yet to establish a permanent presence. “These cities wait for an entire year for a Jewish presence,” said Yoel Gancz, a coordinator of Merkos Shlichus. “Community members do not look at them as students, but as full fledged rabbis.” It’s a great responsibility for the volunteers, whose average age is 20. Before Passover, Merkos and Or Avner sponsor training sessions to brief volunteers on topics ranging from koshering kitchens for Passover use to cultural literacy. Rather than being daunted by the enormity of the task, students at Chabad-Lubavitch yeshivas vie for Passover positions. Gancz received three applications for every available spot this year.
As Chabad’s presence as a worldwide movement matures, its approach to Merkos Shlichus is becoming more efficient. Young men educated in Chabad’s Moscow yeshiva obviate the expense of importing American Seder leaders. Coupled with the fact that flights from Israel to exotic locations in the Far East and Africa are much cheaper than long overseas journeys, and the reality that many Jews living in distant outposts of civilization are Israeli, Chabad sends students from Israel to those places. The same economic considerations explain why Australian students are the ones hosting New Zealand’s Seders.
But dollars and cents are not the bottom line at Chabad. “People expect Chabad to be there for them,” said Rabbi Mendel Kotlarsky, a Merkos coordinator. “We have received hundreds of emails asking for a Seder from people who have no where to turn to but us.” It’s why Merkos allocates extra funds to enable Nepal’s Seder, with 2,000 participants, to be powered by a generator rented to cover the area’s spotty electricity. And why Merkos sends two rabbinical students to Wyoming, even though the Seder will attract around 60 people. Rabbi Kotlarsky said, “It’s our job to take care of Jewish people.”