While Jewish rye and bagels replace matzah after the week-long Passover ban on leavened bread, social scientists might want to chew on a fifth question: What is it about this particular holiday that makes otherwise unaffiliated and non-observant Jews care—enough to go out of their way to honor the holiday?
They often don’t know anything about kosher or Shabbat, but when Passover comes around, something kicks in, and whether they call themselves agnostics or secular or just plain uninvolved, many find themselves gravitating to other Jews, to a Seder table, and often even to the strictures of a weeklong diet that forbids consumption of pizza and pasta.
It’s a peculiarity that Chabad-Lubavitch representatives around the world have come to recognize, and, in the interests of Jewish education and Jewish continuity, to capitalize on in a big way. Not only in terms of the numbers–though it wouldn’t be hard to extrapolate a figure of more than half a million Jews who were at a Chabad Seder on April 12th–the impact itself is substantive. Whether it’s the 120 Jews in Guatemala City who sang the Dayenu with Rabbi Sholom Pelman, the 600 in Rostov-on-Don with Rabbi Chaim Fridman, or the 2,000-plus in Nepal with Rabbi Chezy Lifshitz, the effect of a spirited, content-rich Seder experience with Chabad has a long half-life that opens a path for many who make their way, gingerly perhaps, but steadily, towards becoming more involved and educated about their heritage.
Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, of Beijing, China, told lubavitch.com that 80 of the 350 who came to the Chabad Seder at the Rennaissance Hotel in Beijing, had never met him though they live in Beijing. The Seder was the drawing card for the beginning of a relationship with Chabad, with its educational and social programs that are intended to advance Jewish participation and involvement, he explains. With the familiar tune of the ma-nishtana (Four Questions) echoing simultaneously from various tables in respective languages, among them, French, Chinese and Hebrew, “it was a very powerful experience.”
“There was something binding here that transcended the many languages and any other barriers–and the people felt it–they experienced it,” said Freundlich.
After swimming upstream for 18 years in Lima, Peru, against often disheartening difficulties, Sara Blumenfeld, Chabad representative with her husband, Zalman, told lubavitch.com that this Passover was a watershed for her community. “People came to us wanting to buy kosher-for-Passover foods. They didn’t mind the expense. They wanted to observe the holiday properly.”
Chabad’s reach in Peru extends to Cusco’s transient Jewish population, where 800 travelers joined the Seder, and this year for the first time ever, also to Huaraz—high in the Andes Mountains and a frequent base for expeditions to the Cordilleras Blanca mountain ranges, where some 50 mountain trekkers drank the four cups of wine and read the Hagaddah with Chabad. But it’s a qualitative change that matters, says Sara, who together with her husband and children hosted a Seder for 300 at their Chabad Center in Lima. “We got calls before Pesach from many people with halachik questions about details concerning the Passover observances,” she said. “They wanted to do it right.”
Why the change? Sara credits it to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s blessing and to persistent efforts to educate and reach out to Jewish people with Chabad’s trademark approach of openness yet uncompromising standards. “We used to get 10 requests for tefillin over the course of a month. Now, we’re getting that weekly.”
An Eskimo at the Seder table? Yes, in Anchorage, where Passover proper didn’t begin until 10:30 p.m. (nightfall in Alaska at this time of year), Rabbi Yosef and Esti Greenberg met their first “Jeskimo.” It was a first for this Jewish Eskimo too, who joined about another 100—among them residents and tourists, at the Chabad Seder. The Greenbergs, who are in the midst of building the state’s first Jewish Historical Museum, devoted a lot of energy educating the community in advance, garnering local tv coverage of their model Seder and matzah bakery for children.
According to reports by the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS, in Russia alone, 70,000 Jews participated at communal Seders conducted by Chabad Shluchim. In Denpropetrovsk, Ukraine, some 10,000, and overall, the FJC counts 162,210 at their communal Seders. To be sure, these numbers are impressive. But it’s what happens after the Seder that turns the sensation into a story:
When Ofer Kripor, an Israeli backpacker who completed his army service, decided to settle in the Andes of Peru, he had little interest in anything Jewish. Today, Ofer, who met Chabad at their Seder in Cusco several years back, is the Chabad representative with his wife, Yael to this exotic tourist city, where he now opened a kosher restaurant.
It’s persistence, it’s a lot of Jewish education, and a refusal to be discouraged. Most of all, says Sara Blumenfeld, it’s the Rebbe’s inspiration, and his blessing that if “we dedicated ourselves to our purpose, we will eventually see results.”