Reflections from Sarah Fishman on her 2011 Pesach Project Trip to the Former Soviet Union

Friday, May 20, 2011

Every year at our Passover seders we ask, “How is this night different from all other nights?” The Four Questions held new meaning this year as I traveled from Israel to the Ukraine to celebrate Passover with three Jewish communities across the Crimean peninsula. It was my first Passover away from my family and our treasured traditions, my first Passover outside the United States, and my first time in the Former Soviet Union. While the differences seemed endless, they were incredibly worthwhile. My travels enhanced my understanding of the successes and challenges confronting progressive Judaism in the FSU and enabled me to formulate meaningful connections with Jewish leaders and community members in the Ukraine. Passover teaches us to seek and question experiences that are new and different; through this process of seeking and questioning we learn, grow and enrich our lives. I am so grateful to have had this opportunity, which would not have been possible without the generous financial support of family and friends.

My journey began in Simferopol, the central and largest city in Crimea. After landing in the Simferopol airport we were greeted by our rabbi and “tour guide” for the week, Rabbi Misha Kapustin, and our translator, Tonya. Rabbi Kapustin is from the FSU, was ordained by the Leo Beck College and serves as rabbi for the three communities we visited - Simferopol, Yevpatoria and Feodosia. As we heard and experienced, Rabbi Kapustin truly represents thousands of Jews living in the Ukraine. He is the only progressive rabbi in the Crimea, working tirelessly to build and maintain a dynamic, progressive Jewish presence across the region. Rabbi Kapustin is an engaging and inspiring leader; a genuine Jewish hero and role model. It was moving and thought-provoking to witness his rabbinic leadership. 

We spent our first full day with Simferopol’s progressive Jewish community. Rabbi Kapustein first gave us a tour of the building used for services and other community events. Like the others around it, the building is in need of significant repair both inside and out. The room we used for the seder operates as both a space for prayer and for community events, a room across the hall serves as Rabbi Kapustein’s office, an empty upstairs classroom once housed a weekly religious school now closed due to a lack of funding, and a Bar/Bat mitzvah program is still only an aspiration. 

Yet signs of progress due to Rabbi Kapustin’s tireless efforts are certainly palpable. Rabbi Kapustin explained that recent fundraising successes enabled the construction of a community kitchen, and pictures of cultural and religious programs and events (including a youth summer program) fill the walls of the sanctuary. Over 60 community members arrived for the seder, a larger number than expected. The room was packed, but warm and lively. We divided the seder among Rabbi Kapustin, myself, Yael Rooks-Rapport and Jaqui McCabe (the other HUC students I traveled with). We each took turns leading and teaching parts of the seder for a community that knew little about the rituals and traditions. Our translator was fantastic - when Yael, Jacqui and I spoke she translated our words into Russian, and then quietly translated Rabbi Kapustin’s stories and anecdotes into English as he spoke, so we could understand the ways in which he interacted with the congregation. 

The next day we journeyed to Yevpatoria, a quaint coastal town an hour west of Simferopol. In the last fifteen years the progressive Jewish community of Yevpatoria has reclaimed and restored a beautiful synagogue that was built in the early 1900’s by working class Jews and then converted into a horse stable during the Nazi occupation and an oil factory during Soviet rule. The inside of the building is breathtaking due to both its architecture and the community’s recent renovations and additions. An impressive wooden ark built by the community commands the front of the room, pictures of building projects and community gatherings line the walls. Since the building belongs to the government as a historic monument, the bureaucratic process of attempting to install a heating system would be quite complex, so the community utilizes a small (heated) house next door for the majority of its events in the cold winter months. Our seder was actually the first event this year to be held inside the synagogue, and it was still too cold inside to remove our coats. However, the spiritual warmth, energy and enthusiasm of the 40 Ukrainian grandmothers I never had made up for the lack of physical heat. (This community was the oldest we visited, its members range from 60 to 104!) The ladies prepared the seder tables while dancing to lively klezmer music; I watched with amazement as they brought in platter after platter of the chopped salads, broiled potatoes and roasted chicken legs they had prepared. Everyone sat huddled together in coats and hats for the 2 hour seder, but we sang and ate to keep warm. We were sent off with hugs and kisses from Ukrainian grandmothers kvelling over us in Russian. 

Our last community seder was in Feodosia, another coastal city about two hours east of Simferopol. This community was quite different from the previous two. The building, although stark and modest on the outside, is home to the most vibrant progressive Jewish community center in Crimea. The small building is literally and figuratively bursting with strength, energy and innovation. It houses a women’s club, a seniors club, a food supply program for needy Jews all over Crimea, a weekly religious school program, a teen center, a library and museum, and a synagogue. We were given a lively tour (in Russian, translated by Tonya) by the center’s librarian, who proudly showed off the artwork lining the walls made by members of the women’s club and the picture and information displays of community programs and initiatives. Every inch of wall space was filled with confirmation that the Ukrainian Jewish presence is resilient and thriving. We met with the center’s director, who explained that with the help of full time staff, part time staff and numerous volunteers, physical and financial assistance is provided to underprivileged Jews living across the region. 

However, financial concerns were also painfully present in Feodosia. In years past, the community seder has been held in a local restaurant with enough space to accommodate all those wishing to attend. This year, due to financial constraints, the seder was held in the building’s sanctuary, only big enough for about 30 guests - a much smaller number than usual. 

We presented gifts at the end of each seder made possible by generous donations from Women of Reform Judaism and the discretionary funds of Rabbi Joe Rapport and Rabbi Gaylia Rooks. To us, these gifts seemed humble and modest in light of the tremendous challenges facing the communities. A few yarzeit candles, some havdalah candles, a few children’s Passover coloring books, a mezuzah, a Seder plate, and Shabbat candlesticks, yet each community was thrilled to receive our offerings; essential Jewish ritual items generally unattainable in the Ukraine. Although most of the words of thanks we received were in a language we could not understand, it was evident by the end of the trip that the gifts we brought - both physical and figurative - were highly valued and appreciated. 

Passover is a celebration of rebirth, renewal and hope for the future. My journey to the FSU revealed a revived, spirited and flourishing Jewish presence overcoming past and present obstacles. Yet as we also experienced, there is still much work to be done. At the conclusion of each seder Rabbi Kapustin remarked, “Next year in Jerusalem...but if not, same time, same place!” For these three communities, the notion of “next year in Jerusalem” carries additional meaning: Next year in a building that can accommodate all who wish to join the Passover seder. Next year with a funded and thriving religious school. Next year in a heated synagogue. Dayenu- that would be enough.

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