Holiday of freedom

Still under fire, Ukraine’s Jews seek ‘spiritual power’ this Passover

Jewish groups distribute tens of thousands of boxes of matzah, prepare for hundreds of communal seders across the country for the beleaguered community

The war in Ukraine is still raging more than a year after Russia invaded the country, but for Ukrainian Jews, the upcoming Passover holiday will be a time for togetherness, with thousands set to gather for large communal Seders, as well as smaller ones in people’s homes.

Preparations for Passover this year were easier than last year, when the festival fell a little over a month after the start of the invasion and the country was still in a state of major upheaval and uncertainty, according to a number of people involved in the efforts. Now, however, the Jewish community – and the country as a whole – is facing a different challenge: a war with no clear end in sight.

The feelings and themes that will be discussed at the seders will reflect that, according to Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya, the executive director of Midreshet Schechter in Israel and the head of Ukraine’s Masorti community.

“Last year, there were a lot of refugees so that was more the focus. This year is more about salvation and hope. People feel like [the war] is not going to end so they need more spiritual power to keep going,” Gritsevskaya told eJewishPhilanthropy this week, speaking over the phone from Poland as she made her way by train to Kyiv, where she will remain for the holiday.

She will lead a Seder with more than 100 people in Kyiv, including children from the wartorn city of Kharkiv who will have a chance for respite and a chance to interact with other Ukrainian Jewish youngsters. “They will meet other kids from Kyiv and have meaningful conversations about what Pesach means today. I am so interested to hear what they’ll say,” Gritsevskaya said.

“The longer it lasts, the harder it gets, especially for the kids. It’s a whole generation of kids who aren’t having a childhood. They started with [the] corona[virus] and now they have the war years,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important for them to have these Jewish experiences, to get out of their regular life and to be with other people.”

The Masorti movement in Ukraine will host another Seder in Chernivtsi that more than 110 people are registered to attend. There will also be smaller Seders in Odesa and Kharkiv. 

“I think people prefer the communal Seder. It’s an opportunity to meet each other. It’s something large and meaningful. It shows that the community is still there, that not everyone has left,” Gritsevskaya said.

“The winter was very hard. We had to supply generators and warm clothes. And there’s still a feeling that there’s no end to it,” she said.

For Inna Vdovichenko, the head of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee office in Odesa, the Passover Seder is a “symbol of freedom, a symbol of togetherness,” both of which she said the Ukrainian Jewish community needs now.

After more than a year of war, members of the Ukrainian Jewish community are looking forward to an opportunity “to hug each other, to eat food together,” Vdovichenko told eJP.

JDC, which has operated in Ukraine since before the fall of the Soviet Union, will host more than 200 Seders of varying sizes across the country, some in person and some online. In total, JDC believes that upwards of 10,000 people will attend its ritual meals. The organization will also provide Seder kits so that hundreds of Jews can host meals in their own homes.

“JDC has a long history of helping Jews throughout the region to observe Jewish tradition. We organized our first public Seders two years before the fall of the Soviet Union and have been ensuring that Jews have access to matzah, food, and safe spaces they need to observe the holiday,” JDC CEO Ariel Zwang said in a statement.

Vdovichenko said the number of people who are planning to attend JDC Seders has far exceeded expectations, apparently driven by this need for togetherness. At one Seder in Odesa, “we estimated that 500 elderly people would be coming. It’s going to be over 1,000,” she said.

To thank them for their dedicated work over the past year, JDC is also giving special “thank you” packages to its staff and volunteers with special foods and snacks, Vdovichenko said.

“At the heart of the Passover story are resilience and hope, two qualities embodied by Jews in Ukraine, across the former Soviet Union, and among refugees remaining in Europe. In helping our fellow Jews celebrate the holiday of deliverance, we’re providing a critically needed sense of optimism for the future,” Zwang said.

Chabad, a dominant force for religious life in Ukraine, will host 90 community Seders across the country, including in some of the cities and villages seeing fierce fighting.

“We will make sure every Jew can feel liberated this Passover, even as the war continues,” Rabbi Avraham Wolff, director of Chabad of Odesa, said in a statement.

JDC is delivering over 50,000 boxes of matzah to Ukrainian Jews, as well as other food packages, largely thanks to funding from Jewish Federations of North America, UJA-Federation of New York, the Claims Conference and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

Chabad too will be distributing such Passover food packages to tens of thousands of Jewish families, also thanks to donations from IFCJ and the Orthodox Union.

Gritsevskaya said last year she had to bring in far more food supplies for her communities, but this year they are more able to get what they need from Ukraine as local production is up and running. As people’s physical needs are somewhat better provided for, she said she is focusing her attention on preparing for prayer services over the holiday.

“But we are still bringing a lot of matzah,” she said.