A Pesach Story

This story is not quite ancient history but it seems that way at times. 30 years is  a long time and we live in a world much different than the world we lived in in 1982. A lot has changed for me in the past 30 years and I have sat at 60 seder tables over those years. But, my memory of Pesach 1982 is still fresh in my mind.

I spent Pesach 1982 in the city of Kishinev, in the former Soviet Union. I traveled there with a classmate of mine on a special journey. We were one of  many pairs of Rabbinical school students traveled to the USSR that year and in the years before and after to spend holidays attempting to meet with and encourage Jews who had been refused the basic human right to live where they wanted to live. Those who expressed a desire to emigrate to Israel were routinely persecuted: their jobs were taken away, their lives threatened and, in many cases, they were separated from their families.

I won’t go into the entire story of my 5 days in the USSR.  During those 5 days, I met courageous people, determined people whose dream of leaving the USSR for Israel gave their lives meaning and hope.

But, there is  one part of the story that I will share here. My friend and I arrived in Kishinev around noon on erev Pesach. We spent the better part of the day calling the numbers we had been given. These were people we were supposed to meet with but each call went unanswered and our one attempt to visit a family had to be aborted when we were realized we were being followed rather closely by some suspicious looking individuals. We decided instead to go to a market to purchase some bitter herbs for a hotel room Seder to go along with the matza and cans of tuna we had brought with us.

As we began to put the symbols of the Seder on the hotel room table, we decided that we should give it one more try and took a cab to the house which by its address we could tell was the closest to the hotel. We got out of the cab, walked quickly to the door and before we could even knock, the door opened and we were pulled in with one word: “Shalom”.

The family had seen us outside and knew immediately who we were. They motioned us downstairs to the basement where they would be holding their Seder. We were shown the seats for each member of the family and the two additonal seats that had been placed at the Seder table earlier that day. They were not for us, rather they were in honor of the two students who had joined the family at the Seder the year before and had brought such joy and support to the family. We were pleased to sit in their seats and join a Seder in which the talk of freedom came from the depths of the heart.

The story had a happy ending. Five years after we left Kishinev, the family was finally allowed to leave. Our phone calls, and letters to them kept their spirits up and our actions on their behalf made a difference as they ultimately left the USSR. We met and hugged in freedom.

I learned two lessons that Pesach. First, I learned how remarkable the Jewish spirit is. To continue to dream, to continue to hope, to continue to believe, to continue to identify even at such a cost is a hallmark of our people. One of the great sources of pride for me as a Jew is to realize how our ancestors and our  brothers and sisters faced difficulties most of us will never experience and still stood tall and proud as Jews. They are an inspiration for all of us.

And the second thing I learned was that it often  happens that when we think we are going to be the ones to do a mitzva for others, we end up being the beneficiary of a mitzva. We went to Russia thinking that we were going to save the day. We were Elijahs. But, in the end, we were the ones who were lonely, sad and hungry, and we were pulled through an open door of kindness and generosity. Perhaps our greatest accomplishment on our trip was giving this family an opportunity to welcome us in and make our Pesach festive.

I have never forgotten that Pesach and never forgotten the lesson that in times of great hardship, human beings still manage to reach out to others in kindness and generosity. What a Pesach it was.


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