For Jews fleeing Ukraine, Passover takes on added meaning this year

Rabbis and Jewish organizations are working around the clock in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe to ensure that Jews who remain in Ukraine and refugees who have fled can to celebrate the holiday.

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Daria, 19, and Alina, 18, refugees from Odesa, Ukraine, distribute tomatoes to a woman during preparations for the celebration of Jewish Passover at the Chabad Jewish Education Center in Berlin, Germany.

Daria, 19, and Alina, 18, refugees from Odesa, Ukraine, distribute tomatoes to a woman during preparations for the celebration of Jewish Passover at the Chabad Jewish Education Center in Berlin, Germany.

Markus Schreiber / AP

“Good morning! Happy morning!” Rabbi Avraham Wolff said with a big smile as he walked in to the Chabad synagogue in Odesa, Ukraine.

Russian missiles had just struck an oil refinery in the city, turning the sky charcoal gray. Hundreds were lining up outside his synagogue in hopes of receiving a kilo of matzah each for their Passover dinner tables.

The flat, unleavened bread, imperative at the ritual meal known as a seder, is hard to find in war-torn Ukraine amid the war and a crippling food shortage.

But the rabbi said he wasn’t about to let anything get him down — whether it was the lack of matzah or that his wife and children weren’t with him, having fled the Black Sea port for Berlin days earlier.

“I need to smile for my community,” Wolff said as Jews in Ukraine — a nation steeped in Jewish history and heritage — and around the world prepared for Friday’s start of Passover. “We need humor. We need hope.”

Tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews have fled Ukraine, while about 80% remain, according to estimates from Chabad, one of the world’s largest Hasidic Jewish organizations.

The holiday marks the liberation of Jewish people from slavery in ancient Egypt and the exodus that followed under the leadership of Moses. The story has taken on special meaning this year for Jewish Ukrainian refugees undergoing their own exodus.

Chabad, which has deep roots and a wide network in Ukraine, and other groups including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, known as JDC, and the Jewish Federations of North America, mobilized to help Ukrainian Jews celebrate Passover wherever they have sought refuge.

In Odesa, Wolff was preparing to host two large seders, welcoming trucks loaded with Passover supplies — matzah from Israel, milk from France, meat from Britain.

“This year, we celebrate as one big Jewish family around the world,” Wolff said.

JDC, which has evacuated more than 11,600 Jews from Ukraine, shipped more than two tons of matzah, over 400 bottles of grape juice and 700 pounds-plus of kosher Passover food for refugees in Poland, Moldova, Hungary and Romania, according to Chen Tzuk, the organization’s director of operations in Europe, Asia and Africa. In Ukraine, its social service centers and volunteers have distributed nearly 16 tons of matzah to elderly Jews and families in need, she said.

“Passover is something familiar and basic for Jewish people,” said Tzuk, whose group was organizing in-person seders in countries bordering Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe and facilitating online seders where it’s too dangerous to gather in person. “For refugees who have left everything behind, it’s important to be able to celebrate this holiday with honor and dignity.”

The Jewish Federations of North America set up a volunteer hub in support of refugees fleeing Ukraine in a partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel, the JDC and IsraAID.

Alina Spaulding, a Russian-speaking volunteer in that effort who now lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, fled Kharkiv, Ukraine, as a 5-year-old in the 1970s with her parents. She said the war has rekindled strong connections to Ukraine.

“My mom showed me a photo of me with my grandpa on a street that was recently bombed,” Spaulding said. “We talked about the university in Kharkiv where my mom and dad went, which was also hit. Suddenly, it all felt so personal.

“We’re in the middle of a modern-day exodus,” she said.

Dr. Yaacov Gaissinovitch, his wife Elizabeth and their three children — 4, 8 and 11 years old — fled the Ukrainian city of Dnipro by car on March 4. Gaissinovitch, a urologist and mohel who performs the Jewish rite of circumcision, said it pained him, as an observant Jew, to drive on Shabbat — a forbidden act on the day of rest and prayer except when lives are at stake.

“I drove nonstop for 12 hours to Moldova to save us all,” he said.

In Dnipro, Gaissinovitch had his offices in the Menorah Center, a center of Jewish life, housing a synagogue, shops, restaurants, museums and the office of the city’s chief rabbi.

After a month of being severed from everything familiar, the Chabad center in Vienna has been a blessing, Gaissinovitch said.

“After being disconnected for days, the children have been able to see that our life hasn’t stopped,” he said.

A similar community at the Chabad center in Berlin is housing about 1,000 refugees, including Rabbi Avraham Wolff’s wife and children from Odesa.

Refugees, including 120 children from an Odesa orphanage who arrived in Berlin with Wolff’s family, distributed Passover items, said Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, Berlin’s chief rabbi.

“That people on the receiving end are able to give and not be viewed as victims, it’s empowering and energizing,” he said.

Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal (center) during preparations for Passover at the Chabad Jewish Education Center in Berlin, Germany.

Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal (center) during preparations for Passover at the Chabad Jewish Education Center in Berlin, Germany.

Markus Schreiber / AP

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