In Nepal, Piecing Together a Seder, Suitcase by Suitcase
by Dovid Margolin
It’s past 11 o’clock at night at the Chabad House in Kathmandu, Nepal, and a calm breeze wafts through the Jewish center’s courtyard. Rabbi Chezky Lifshitz is wrapping up a Torah class he has been giving to 30 Israelis, and a few more sit about chatting.
Although a serene quietness envelopes this Himalayan Chabad House, it is less than a week before Passover, and Lifshitz still does not have all the supplies necessary to ensure that Kathmandu’s iconic seder – along with three others held in other parts of the country – can take place.
Yet the seders will undoubtedly go on.
On March 23, the Israeli Foreign Ministry went on strike, stalling a container of Passover supplies that had been sent for the seders and addressed to the Israeli embassy in Nepal, in port in Kolkata, India. Although the strike ended on April 3, the container filled with matzah, wine, Haggadahs and other supplies, will most likely never make it to Kathmandu on time.
“We are still hoping to get the shipment, but it usually takes more than two weeks for it to arrive here from the port,” explains Lifshitz, who together with his wife, Chani, have served as Chabad emissaries in Kathmandu since 1999. “If we have two drivers and they drive 24 hours straight and the roads are clear, then we will have a small chance.”
Shortly after the strike started, and after realizing that baking matzah in Kathmandu was not a viable option, Lifshitz came up with an alternate plan: sending suitcases packed with basic Passover necessities together with those traveling to Nepal before the holiday.
Lifshitz’s request for help has spread rapidly by word of mouth and social media, and in the last two weeks hundreds of kilos of matzah and Haggadahs have arrived with scores of tourists.
“We need at minimum 1,000 kilos of supplies,” says Lifshitz. “Many kinds of people have been bringing supplies with them – students, backpackers, people from kibbutzim – it is amazing. Rabbi [Yosef Chaim] Kantor [Chabad emissary in Bangkok, Thailand] has been helping us a lot, sending supplies with people who are in Thailand and traveling here.”
Wine, however, is the one sacramental item that will have to be made in Kathmandu if the shipment never does actually make it.
“If it doesn’t arrive, then we will make our own grape juice for the seder,” he says. “We’ll make it like they did in the older generation.”
Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, said “we’re pleased that the strike is over, and that we can again work together to help the Pesach supplies reach our sedarim throughout Nepal. Even if they do not reach there, we will continue to do everything in our power to ensure that the sedarim take place as planned, as we have in past years.”
As in past years, Lubavitch World Headquarters is underwriting a significant part of the expenses for the sedars, but at a substantial increase this year made necessary by the likelihood that the containers will not arrive in time.
Frontier of Jewish Life
Since the mid-1970s, following the completion of their compulsory service in the army, hundreds of thousands of young Israelis have set out for a year or two of world travel in what has become almost a rite of passage in secular Israeli society. Often with their hair grown long, these Israeli tourists strap themselves into backpacks and head mostly to either South America or East Asia.
Today, certain Chabad Centers are geared to these young travelers in such faraway places as Cusco, Peru, and Bariloche, Argentina in South America; and Chiang Mai, Thailand, and, of course, Kathmandu, Nepal in Asia.
Each year, Rabbi and Mrs. Lifshitz, with the help of rabbinical students sent by Lubavitch World Headquarters, organize four seders for the thousands of Israeli backpackers that venture through the country each year. The biggest is held in Kathmandu, where around 1,000 to 1,500 Jews come together to celebrate the holiday. There is another English-language seder, as well as two large ones, in the cities of Pokhara and Manang, a city that sits perched 11,614 feet above sea level.
While feeding masses of people may not be unfamiliar to the Lifshitz family, Passover supplies are trickier than most, and for the most part cannot be prepared locally. To get ready, the couple makes sure to have a container of supplies shipped out months before Passover so it can make the slow journey overseas through the Suez Canal to Sri Lanka, before docking in Kolkata, India.
The container is officially sent to and accepted by the Israeli embassy in Nepal. But when the Israeli Foreign Ministry went on strike on March 23, the embassy was closed, and there was no one to accept the supplies. With the strike over for nearly a week, the container is still sitting in Kolkata.
“We’re trying to get the container expedited, but it’s addressed to the embassy and not Chabad,” explains Yisroel New, an Australian rabbinical student who is currently in Kathmandu helping Lifshitz.
He adds that each of the young rabbis he traveled with lugged a suitcase filled with food along with them, and that throughout the day, more and more people are entering the Chabad House with some of the necessary supplies.
“Someone pulled up today with 180 kilos of matzah,” he says.
With supplies slowly piling up, by all accounts the seders will take place, however squeezed they might up end up being.
It is New’s first time in Nepal, and as late evening set in and the Chabad House finally quieted down after a long day, he looked around to reflect on this exotic outpost of Jewish life.
“It’s very chaotic here,” he says. “Cars and motorcycles are flying by; you see monkeys on the streets; there are people everywhere. But when you come out of the airport here, you don’t have to even say anything. They start coming up to you saying, ‘Beit Chabad? Beit Chabad?’ The Chabad House here really is a home away from home for every Jew.”