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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Yonah Bookstein

Refugee Seders in Lublin

Twenty six years of leading communal seders could not prepare us for what we would experience

“Thank you very much,” said Olga with her hands over her heart. “You lifted our spirits and helped us smile again. You took our minds from the war, and created a real celebration of life, thank you.”

Thanks to nearly one hundred donors, dozens of volunteers, and major amounts of Divine providence, the Passover Seders for refugees in Lublin were wonderful and inspiring. The seders were transformational for the participants and organizers. It challenged us to create new ways to engage adults and children in an ancient ritual which is full of symbolism and meaning, in multiple languages simultaneously. When we finished Chad Gad Ya at 11:30pm Saturday night, with participants voicing the different characters in the song, we realized how fortunate we were that everyone had a positive experience, and marveling that participants stayed so late.

Rachel, Shlomo, Naftali and I, with Jonathan and Natalie Gerber and their three children arrived in Lublin the Tuesday night before with a sprinter bus packed with supplies from Israel, Warsaw, Los Angeles, and Vienna, on a mission to create the most joyous and delicious Passover. We were determined that this refugee seder would be an experience of a lifetime for all the participants. Not only should it be delicious, but the room must be beautiful and we need to have tons of activities for the children. Oh, and it had to be done in Russian and Polish, and most people had never had a seder.

Often when people think of a refugee, we think of a forlorn person who has nothing. And since this person has nothing, they will be fine with whatever they are given. However, that is not what our tradition teaches about how to treat a refugee.

The Shulchan Aruch teaches that we should treat people who have fallen on hard times with the dignity and respect that they were accustomed to. “It is incumbent upon the people of the city to supply them with all their needs, in the manner they were accustomed to before they became poor...” (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 34:3)

The Ukrainian refugees at the hotel are lawyers, engineers, teachers, business owners, salespeople etc who are not accustomed to handouts. They left their homes, businesses, livelihood, schools, synagogues, and cities as Russia’s war bore down on Ukraine. Now they live a few to a room in a hotel. They have frozen bank accounts, fathers and cars left behind in the war zone. They once enjoyed meals out at restaurants, and good bottles of wine. One twelve year old told me that he could host all our families in his “giant” home in Kyiv when the war is over.

So I asked Kamil, the amazing head chef, “Can you make a feast — even without your regular products — like you would for a Polish wedding? A gourmet and elegant meal where you spare no expense?”

“For sure, Rabbi Yonah,” Kamil assured me, “no problem.”

Rachel and Kamil started discussing what Kosher for Passover is all about. She explained that we don’t use lots of Polish go-to foods like kasha, beans, barley, or rice. And about twenty other things like soy sauce and non-kosher balsamic vinegar.

“No bread?”

“No, sorry no bread.”

“What about Soya?”

“Sorry, no soybeans.”

He started looking less optimistic. So Rachel went online to look for traditional Polish recipes that would work well on Passover. Chicken with mushroom sauce. Beef over mashed potatoes. Creamed broccoli soup, without cream. The meal started to come together. Rachel found a bunch more ideas on Polish food websites. They created some menu options and shopping lists.

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