Seventy students from the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown spent Passover as “strangers in a strange land,” in such varied places as Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), the Canary Islands, and Coeur d’Alene in Idaho.
On May 9, six of them took a break from studying for final exams at the “NJ headquarters of the Worldwide Lubavitch Movement” to speak with NJ Jewish News about the unique experiences they found in these far-flung parts of the world.
Aryeh Herson, a resident of Basking Ridge who is also the grandson of Rabbi Moshe Herson, the RCA’s dean, and Eliezur Shur from Montreal spent the holiday week in the Canary Islands — an autonomous region of Spain off the coast of Morocco — and co-officiated at a small seder there.
The region “does not have much of an established Jewish community and there is not much of a communal feel,” Aryeh Herson said, adding that there is no synagogue or Chabad center in the region. The student shluhim — Chabad emissaries — were able to contact some Jews in the area. “They were not traditional Jews and they were a little apprehensive about their Jewish identity,” said Herson, “but we put them in contact with other Jews on the island and eventually we got seven people together for our seder.”
Although some had been to previous seders, because of their lack of experience with Jewish ritual “they didn’t know much,” said Herson. “We were bringing a seder to them and providing a real spiritual experience. I think they felt part of a global Jewish community, something I don’t think they had ever felt before.”
“It was a cool experience,” said Shur. “Jews from a really small community really appreciate it when they are able to participate in Jewish activities.”
Laizer Mangel of Cherry Hill traveled to India, to the impoverished city of Kolkata, where there is a Jewish community whose roots go back 200 years and that now has only 25 members. He and fellow student Berel Dubinsky managed to recruit 30 Indian Jews to take part in their seder, which was held at a Jewish-run girls’ school whose student body is now entirely Muslim.
“The older people in their 60s and 70s have very few memories of religious life,” Mangel said. “They didn’t remember how to make a seder.” But after they ate the shmura matza prepared by Chabad, said Mangel, they told him, “‘This tastes like the matza we produced years ago at our bakery.’” Through the rituals that they may only have vague recollections of, he said, “they got the spiritual connection they were yearning for.”
Avrohom Kener, a resident of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., conducted a seder in Boulder, Colo., where, he said, “there is quite a bit of assimilation, despite one Chabad house on the University of Colorado campus and a second in the town itself.” Kener and his colleague Reuven Abeniem assisted the resident Chabad rabbi in organizing and conducting the seder at the off-campus Chabad house, which 15 people attended.
For the end of Passover the two students went to Omaha, Neb., to be near a conference center where billionaire Warren Buffet’s corporation, Berkshire Hathaway, was holding a shareholders’ meeting. They rented a vacant two-story bar nearby and converted it into a temporary Chabad house for the final days of the eight-day holiday.
“We made a synagogue on the second floor and had a minyan for every service,” Kener told NJJN. “We had our meals on the first floor. I remember walking into the bar and thinking, ‘This is crazy.’”
Dovid Zaltzman is from Toronto. He conducted a seder in the city of Kostanay, Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia. Of the 25,000 Jews in that country, 55 came to his Passover feast.
“It was the biggest number of people who ever came out for any Jewish occasion,” said Zaltzman. But the venture almost was derailed.
A day before the holiday began, a truck bringing the matza and wine had not yet reached its destination. “We called the trucking company and they said it would be coming on the afternoon of Shabbat,” Zaltzman said, meaning that it could not be unloaded before Friday evening, and they were faced with the prospect of conducting the seder without two of its most essential ingredients.
Fortunately, a rabbi in another part of the country came to the rescue; he flew to Kostanay with a shipment of wine and matza that arrived in time to be used for the Friday evening seder.
Shneur Wolf, who is from Chicago, spent the holiday in the town of Taganga, Colombia, and prepared a seder for nearly 300 Israeli backpackers who were traveling after their military service. Although no Jews live in Taganga, others came from nearby cities for the holiday.
The venue “was a massive hotel near the water that is run by an Israeli,” said Wolf. The hotel guests, a largely secular bunch, “were extremely receptive to having a seder going on. They came running over to us and said, ‘Please, please, please put me down for the seder.’ It was a very nice experience to help 300 people who otherwise wouldn’t have had a regular seder.”
“Was it more beautiful than being at a seder with your family?” asked dean Herson.
“A seder with my family is nice,” said Wolf, “but this was a different type of beauty.”
Perhaps the most meaningful of the seders conducted by any of the students took place not at a vacation spot or a part of the Third World with a sparse Jewish population but in the Idaho city of Coeur d’Alene, where Shalom Dubov from Princeton was sent to celebrate Passover.
For years, its Jewish community had lived in the terrifying shadow of the Aryan Nation, a racist and anti-Semitic militia group that the FBI has branded a “terrorist threat.” Its armed compound was 10 miles away, in Hayden Lake, and its members often made serious threats against Jews and African-Americans in the area.
Things quieted down after 2000, when the Aryan Nation was defeated in a multi-million-dollar lawsuit and was forced to sell its compound and relocate to South Carolina. But some Jews in Coeur d’Alene remain traumatized by their experiences with their hostile former neighbors.
“The people in the Jewish community told us of the bitter history of this place and how stunned they were that we were having a seder,” said Dubov. “This was something special. This was the first time ever there was a public gathering that all the Jews were invited to. But even now people are unsure if they should come out and be positive about their Judaism.”
Some 20 people attended the seder.
“Everyone there had been to one before,” Dubov said, “but some knew more, some knew less. They now understand Chabad’s message: that it doesn’t matter how many Jews there are or where they are. Chabad takes care of every single Jew.”