by Dovid Margolin
An overcast sky hung above the honking and noisy mess that is Kathmandu, Nepal. It was not even a week before Passover, and Rabbi Chezky Lifshitz, the Chabad emissary to Nepal, was worried whether the supply shipment sent from Israel would arrive in time to prepare and feed the Kathmandu Passover Seder, the largest of its kind in the world.
When the Chabad center’s gates opened and the trucks containing the matzah, wine and other supplies rolled in, a surge of excitement ran through the dozens of Israeli expatriates milling around Kathmandu’s Jewish center’s courtyard. Passover was finally here.
That was in 2012, but it seems like every year, the world-famous seder high in the Himalayas faces an uphill battle to take place. In a country like Nepal and a city like Kathmandu, anything can happen, and Lifshitz, who together with his wife, Chani, organizes the four mass Passover Seders that take place across Nepal each year, is well-aware of that fact.
Yet this year, preparations for the Kathmandu Seder has been thrown into turmoil not by a homegrown, Nepalese quagmire – civil war has in the past gotten in the way of the annual Passover-supply shipment – but by a thoroughly Western problem: the Israeli foreign ministry, under whose aegis fall the staff of the Israeli embassy of Nepal, has gone on strike, and it is the embassy to whom each year the shipment of supplies is sent and with whose help the containers are retrieved. Therefore, this year, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman said, the seder will not take place.
While Rabbi Lifshitz concedes that without the Israeli embassy in Nepal’s help, the containers will almost certainly not be allowed to leave port in India, where they are currently waylaid, canceling the seder is something he is not willing to accept.
“We are currently working through many options,” says Lifshitz over the phone from Nepal. “We are looking into baking matzah here or maybe sending supplies with a lot of people. I’m sure the seder will take place.”
Lifshitz notes that his biggest problem at this time is that his containers are currently being held in India, and it is an expensive venture to store the containers while the situation remains in limbo.
“We have to pay now for them to keep it,” says Lifshitz with a sigh. “But Hashem will help.”
Passover in the Himalayas
These days, the mass Passover seder in Kathmandu has become a tradition among Israeli backpackers who frequent the country, drawing around 1,500 participants each year. When the seder began in 1988, it drew 300 Israelis; today in Kathmandu, aside from the massive Hebrew-language seder, there is an English-language one geared at European and American tourists.
Chabad rabbinical students also run a seder in Pokhara, a city popular with tourists, and another one in Manang, a city high in the Himalayan mountains to which supplies must be airlifted by helicopter, before being trekked in on foot for the last leg of the journey.
Shmuel Loebenstein was a rabbinical student when he made the trip to Nepal to assist with the seder in Pokhara in 2012. He remembers seeing the anxiously awaited trucks carrying Passover supplies finally enter through the Chabad House gates in Kathmandu before Passover, and the excitement that it generated.
“The Chabad House in Kathmandu is a gathering place for the Israelis at all times,” says Loebenstein. “There’s a hostel there, people are just sitting around strumming on guitars or smoking; they feel very comfortable there. When the truck pulled in, this great cheer rang out through the courtyard, and everyone instinctively got up to form a chain to help unpack these massive containers. It’s very surreal to be in this crazy land, surrounded by rapidly Hebrew-speaking Israelis and unpacking these boxes of familiar Israeli products.”
Loebenstein was also shocked by the sheer number of Israelis that he encountered – the Israeli ambassador to Nepal estimates that the number runs to 10,000 Israeli tourists annually.
“From Kathmandu I traveled to Pokhara,” he recalls. “The cities are only like 200 kilometers away from each other, but it takes eight hours to get there because of the condition of the roads. The entire time we kept on meeting more and more Israelis … on the bus, during stops on the road. There is a huge Israeli presence in the country, and from your first day, as a rabbinical student trying to invite as many people as you can to attend the seder, you see that you have your work cut out for you.”
Loebenstein’s seder in Pokhara, which he ran together with three other rabbinical students who had like him traveled there from New York, attracted 300 participants.
“We put up signs around Pokhara advertising the seder,” adds Loebenstein. “On the signs we also wrote that if you would like to come out to help, preparations would be taking place at this and this time. The time came, and these flip-flop-wearing Israelis came out in droves to help us. They sat around peeling vegetables, shelling eggs … whatever needed to be done, everyone wanted to help somehow.
“I remember looking down from the porch of my room and [seeing] this whole bunch of Israeli Jews, thousands of miles from home, sharing memories, talking about Nepal, about Passover back home; they felt at home. That really set the spirit of the whole Passover in Nepal.”
It is to keep this spirit of home and heritage alive, stresses Lifshitz, that the Kathmandu seder and its sister events throughout the country must take place.
“There have been many times when we have had problems arranging the sedarim,” he says. “But in the end, we have always had success, so we are not worried.”