A Ukrainian Jewish Passover seder – it’s complicated!

The Jewish community in Ukraine is still in desperate, constant need of our help.
Ukrainian Jewish refugees participate in a Passover seder at the JCC in Krakow, Poland, April 2022. (Photo by Chuck Fishman/JCC Krakow/Getty Images)

Where are Ukrainian Jews getting their kosher-for-Passover food this year? That question overwhelmed me as I walked through my local grocery store the other day.

Passing by fully-stocked shelves of matzah, desserts, and everything you need for a seder plate, I realized that Jews across Ukraine will face many obstacles just to share a Passover seder with their families.

As a 17-year-old first-generation American from a Ukrainian Jewish family, I felt compelled to help. After all, that could have been me.

More than 14 million Ukrainians have been displaced from their homes since Russia first invaded Ukraine one year ago. Some of them are Jews who thrived in their once large and lively communities. The war has made it difficult for them to continue practicing the most basic and storied Jewish traditions, like sitting down with family and friends for a Passover meal.

So, I decided to try and aid these communities by ensuring they could participate in a very simple yet critical Jewish ritual — a Passover seder. I started a project, Jews4Ukraine, to enable specific charitable organizations to purchase and deliver Passover necessities to Jewish congregations across Ukraine.

Let me tell you why this fundraising effort is so important to me and why it should be to all of us.

Why am I passionate about helping the Ukrainian Jewish community?

Simply put, this mission is who I am, a first-generation American whose entire family immigrated from the former Soviet Union.

I have been fortunate enough to grow up immersed in a shared culture that is both Ukrainian and Jewish. My parents, my older brother, and I speak Russian at home (to clarify, my family grew up in Soviet Ukraine where the primary language spoken was Russian) and eat chicken kotleti (cutlets) together over Friday night dinners.

Chicken Kotleti (Photo: Adrian Maydanich)

My parents were born in Kyiv and Lviv, two cities which we have all come to know because of the devastating war. My grandparents lived successful lives in Ukraine: both my “dedas” (grandpas) were accomplished engineers, and my “babulyas” (grandmas) were highly-respected professionals in the computing and electronics industries.

Despite all their achievements, they were always defined by one word: “Jew.” Discrimination and persecution of Jews living under the Soviet regime limited the opportunities for their families. They faced fierce religious oppression and ultimately decided to immigrate to the United States in search of a better life.

Their journey to America would prove to be trying. To immigrate to the U.S., they had to spend months in Italy, awaiting visas for their families. Not knowing the language made it very difficult to find work and provide for their families. But finally, they secured the opportunity to immigrate.

My family faced hardships in the early years, but they ultimately thrived in their communities through hard work and dedication to their religion. Take my mom, for instance: she first learned English by watching cartoons. She even had to negotiate with bill collectors since my grandparents didn’t yet understand English.

Despite the challenge of learning a new language, my grandparents dedicated themselves to their work and funded my mom’s Jewish day school education, which was their embodiment of what the “American Dream” stood for.

In just a few years, my mom’s parents had become pillars of small business success in the Baltimore community. My babulya coded a project for the Maryland court system which is still in use, and my deda created his own machine shop in downtown Baltimore. Even when I walked into our local Ukrainian grocery store as a kid, the customers would ask me, “Are you Phil and Lisa’s grandson?”

As my family found success in America, they realized that the ability to aid those still facing persecution in Ukraine was not a burden, but instead a blessing. When the Soviet Union fell, they helped our family and friends immigrate to America. Since then, they have supported several causes to help the Jewish community of Ukraine in times of need.

My family is proud of our heritage and religion, and we celebrate our triumphs through adversity and the fulfillment of our “American Dream.” We do not “forget” our past struggles; to the contrary, we always reflect on them and aspire to offer hope and comfort to people who need it.

I feel deeply connected to both my Ukrainian and Jewish roots, admire my family’s triumphs and humanitarian efforts, and want to carry on these ideals through my mission to provide Passover meals to Jews across Ukraine.

So, a few weeks ago, after the trip to the grocery store, I realized that Ukrainian Jews need support with the most basic of needs during this time of devastating war. I immediately thought of my heritage and my religion — the most crucial facets in shaping my character — and I thought, “Why not me? Why not take it upon myself to support these causes?”

How to help provide seder meals for Ukrainian Jews

As media coverage of the Ukraine-Russia war wanes here in America, we need to remember that the Jewish community in Ukraine is still in desperate, constant need of our help.

The Passover seder is a storied tradition in Judaism. With the holiday fast approaching, Ukrainian congregations with tens of thousands of members need kosher-for-Passover food and supplies to celebrate this important mitzvah. After more than one year of devastating warfare, they need this seder as an outlet of hope and comfort in the midst of their chaotic circumstances.

I reached out to dozens of organizations, like the Jewish Relief Network Ukraine (JRNU), working in Ukraine to aid Jews, as well as some of the most influential Jewish leaders across Ukraine to learn about how to best help the community. They need funds to purchase Passover foods — whether charoset or matzah — anything to help fill seder plates to celebrate this important holiday.

Together we can all help Jewish congregations from Kyiv, Lviv, Odessa, Dnipro, Kharkiv, and many other communities by donating to provide these holiday essentials.

Partnering with the Jewish Relief Network Ukraine, the largest Jewish humanitarian relief organization in Ukraine, we will ensure that 100% of the funds raised will be used to distribute seder meals to congregations across the country.

With your contribution to fund even just one box of matzah for a single Ukrainian Jew, you will provide not only a kosher-for-Passover meal, but also hope and comfort to those Jews who may feel hopeless and forgotten by their Jewish brothers and sisters. It’s just that simple — one little action can have a huge impact on your fellow Jews who are in need.

But I would encourage you to take it a step further. You can make an even larger impact by providing Passover meals for a family, a small congregation, or even a large one. You can provide a tiny bit of normalcy to Jewish Ukrainians affected by warfare.

You can provide a seder meal for their family and friends, bringing them together, inspired by faith, tradition and hope. They are in desperate need to keep living and fighting alongside one another for peace and freedom.

You can make a donation to Jews4Ukraine by visiting our website.

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