Every Pesach, in partnership with the World Union for Progressive Judaism, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) sends rabbinical, cantorial, and education students on a service trip to the Former Soviet Union. Participants visit Jewish communities that were once under the realm of Soviet oppression and have since been able to create a revitalized Jewish identity within their communities.
In pairs or small groups, participants - joined with a translator - embark into a country and culture they've yet to experience. As they make their way through Belarus, Russia, and Crimea, students have the opportunity to impact and learn from these communities. Participants lead Pesach seders and educational programs while experiencing Jewish life and Jewish peoplehood in the Former Soviet Union. As future leaders of Reform Judaism, it is our students' responsibility to understand the Progressive Jewish world outside of their own communities.
Our 2015 participants visited Simferopol and Yevpetoria in Crimea; Moscow and Tver in Russia; and Lida, Gomel, Baranovichi, Vitebsk, Bobruisk, Mogilev, and Minsk in Belarus.
Year-In-Israel student Alicia Harris traveled to Moscow and Tver. She participated in two seders led by the Reform community in Moscow and traveled to Tver, where she led a community seder for Orthodox and Reform Jews as well as a youth seder at the Jewish Agency. While in Moscow, Harris toured the Jewish areas of the city and visited the new Jewish Museum.
“One of the most meaningful experiences I had during our time in Tver was meeting the great-grandmother of our translator,” stated Harris. “She was 94 years old and lived through both WWII and the USSR as a Jew. Not only did she make amazing Borscht, she used to be a concert pianist, so she played for us. I felt so lucky to be invited into her home and I was so glad to have the chance to speak to her about her life as a Jew throughout different eras. She had such a unique viewpoint about being Jewish in Russia, which gave me a different perspective that I never heard before.”
Year-In-Israel student Tobias Divack Moss traveled to Simferopol, Kerch, Sevastopol, and Yevpatoria, to lead seders, concerts, and presentations about Passover. Moss met with youth groups, the elderly, and community leaders.
When asked about the most memorable part of the Pesach Project, Moss responded, “We stopped at the 10 km mark outside of the capital city, the site of mass shootings conducted by the Nazis against the Jews. The community leader Kira Grublyte told us the story of the new monument and the young trees that lined the walkway. Everything at the site was constructed, planted, maintained, and protected by the individual members of the Jewish community. The Crimean Jewish community faces many challenges but they face them together.”