Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Belarus Pesach Project

Why was this seder different from all other seders? This year I sang Dayeinu and ate matzah with communities in the country of Belarus, along with my travel partner, Miriam, an HUC rabbinical student. In a partnership between Hebrew Union College and the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the Pesach Project brings HUC students all over the FSU each year to lead Passover seders. The goal? To help make their Passover experience even more meaningful and joyous, and for us to learn about their culture, the culture from which so many of our families come. Additionally, we strive to unite Progressive Jewish Communities around the world.

We flew into Minsk, the city that my grandparents on my father’s side once lived. However, the city today looks nothing like it used to, given that the entire city was destroyed by the end of World War 2. Miriam and I worked with a translator and led 4 Passover seders together. What an experience.

Belarussian Teens
I could have walked into a NFTY NW retreat, except that everyone was speaking Russian. Young, energetic, flirty and intelligent teens with great questions and a good base of knowledge gathered together for a Passover training retreat. Three of us cantorial students had the opportunity to teach a workshop on Passover music. Two days later these teens were sent out around Belarus to assist other communities in leading Passover seders (just like us!). Seeing this active youth was a very encouraging way to begin our trip.

The Yiddishkeight Community of Grodna
From Minsk we took a 5 hour, squished, bus ride to Grodna, to lead 3 seders in a row. It took a few minutes to adjust to leading with a translator and understanding the local customs and needs of the community. The first two seders were with an older group of people. Soon we were hearing stories about the decades gone by when Passover celebrations were not allowed due to war and Soviet control. For the last 20 years or so they have worked to put the pieces back together. The traditions might have almost been lost, but the Yiddishkeight will never be forgotten. They sang one Yiddish folk song after another, with one woman who always jumped up to the piano and another who took the lead with the solos. They even proudly sang Dayeinu in Yiddish for us! It was clear that the language transported them back to another time. A time associated with all types of feelings; oppression, struggles, and joy.

At a later seder, with a group of adults in their 40s, it was a completely different vibe. This was not the generation who grew up speaking Yiddish. This was the generation that didn’t have the chance to grow up celebrating Passover at all. Almost everything I sang seemed unknown to them, and so I focused more on teaching them the songs. Miriam taught about the seder traditions and shared stories. As the end of the seder grew closer, I asked them what songs they knew and wanted to sing. They immediately broke out into Heveinu Shalom Aleichem and Oseh Shalom. All of a sudden, I didn’t feel so different from this community.

Minsk Cantorial Concert
It has become a tradition in Minsk to hold the annual Cantorial Concert in accordance with HUC students visiting for Passover. The concert included beautiful Belarussian dances, choir pieces, instrumental performances, opera singers, a few cantorial style liturgical pieces and the three of us Cantorial students. We each got to sing 2 pieces of music. I have not been so nervous in a very long time. However, once I started to sing, the butterflies flew away and it felt great to sing in the beautiful music hall of Minsk.

Famous from Alaska

Funny enough, it hadn’t occurred to me that the fact that I am from Alaska was going to play any part of my trip to Belarus. What was I thinking? At the beginning of each seder the communities asked where we grew up in the United States. Alaska always got “oohs” and questions. In fact, I should not be surprised at all that I received the same exact 2 questions in Belarus about Alaska as I do in Israel, Oregon, California, east coast…etc.
1. “Is it cold there?”
2. “Do you know Sarah Palin?”

A Translator, Friend and Teacher
The relationship I developed with my translator, Ilona, was one of the most special parts of my trip. Ilona grew up in Minsk, she is in her early 20s and has a degree in linguistics. Miriam and I had the most interesting conversations with her. “What is it like to grow up in a family in which you know that your parents and grandparents were persecuted for being Jewish, and yet you’re not even quite sure what it means to be Jewish because the traditions were interrupted, and the feelings associated with being Jewish were always negative or just non-existent?”
Our translator, Ilona, didn’t just translate words for us, she taught us about life in Belarus, and life as a Belarrusian Jew. On one hand our conversations seemed so familiar, drifting from Birthright Trips, to boyfriends, and to grad school aspirations. On the other hand, as Miriam and I reminisced about our childhood memories in Sunday School and family seders, comparatively Ilona’s Jewish memories began much later in life. She shared with us the story of finding out she was Jewish at the age of 12 and how she decided at the age of 21 to become a Bat Mitzvah.

The Musical Lida Community
It was a 3 hour bus ride to Lida, and we were greeted by a community member, Igor. Igor showed us around town, from castles and motor boat rides on the lake to the more heart wrenching WW2 memorial sites. There was one site, right out of town, in which an entire ghetto of Jews were wiped out in one day. We listened to the horrific story of the adults being separated from the children and brought out into the middle of the forest to be shot. We stood at both the children’s memorial and the adult’s memorial that day. It was brought to our attention that the memorial stone said, “6700 citizens of Belarus were shot here.” Under Soviet rule they were not allowed to write, “Jews were shot here.” Only recently they could add a stone with Hebrew on it and wording that specifies that they were Jews. Quickly I was understanding even more that the oppression and Jewish suffering that we speak about in the Passover seder every year is still part of their personal narratives, it’s not that far in the past for these communities.

The seder in Lida was heartwarming. The children’s choir prepared many songs to perform at the seder. In fact, they had just returned back to Lida from a choir competition in Minsk the week before. Complete with hand movements and smiles, these children (ages 8-16) sang proudly. With enthusiasm the children participated in the seder, watching me intently to see where I would hide the afikomen. Lena, a particularly enthusiastic teen, was glowing after sharing her knowledge of the 4 questions, which she sang beautifully in Hebrew with a Russian accent. After school she studies music at a Music College in town and has aspirations of becoming a Cantor or Rabbi one day.

It’s hard to believe that there is only one Progressive Rabbi for the entire country of Belarus. It was inspiring to see communities made up of lay leaders, flourishing so beautifully. The communities are determined to pass on the Jewish traditions and give their children all of the opportunities they never had. The Sunday School age children are learning Hebrew. The teens are involved in the International Reform Youth Group, Netzer. Young Adults are signing up for Birthright programs to Israel. Teens are having dreams of becoming Jewish clergy. The rebirth of Jewish tradition in Belarus is not an easy task, but it is in good hands.


  1. did the bus driver on your "sheirut" to Grodno pull out stools for people to sit on and make you hold your suitcase on your lap? that was a fun 5 hours...

  2. that sounds so sketchy and even MORE uncomfortable than my ride......eeeee

  3. Great thoughts you got there, believe I may possibly try just some of it throughout my daily life.

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