On a recent morning, seven young students based at the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown gathered around a table to describe their experiences celebrating Passover seders in countries around the world.
They lit up with laughter as they relived the ups and downs of their April missions in places as varied as Kazakhstan, Nigeria, and Argentina. They were egged on by Rabbi Moshe Herson, the Brazilian-born dean of the RCA, and Rabbi Mendel Solomon, director of the RCA’s Cheder Lubavitch school, who is from England.
As the flagship yeshiva of Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn, RCA is a main training ground for the shluchim, or rabbinic emissaries, who are the foot soldiers in the hasidic movement’s global Jewish outreach.
Herson said 17 of the seminary’s 225 students went abroad on a Passover mission, joining hundreds of other Chabad-Lubavitch shluchim. Each shaliah was matched with a travel companion, and sent off equipped with frozen kosher food, a stash of white shirts, and not much else. Their task: to help local Chabad leaders organize seders for whomever they could gather to the table.
Ezekiel Barletta, 20, had it relatively easy. He comes from Argentina, and was assigned to Valencia in Spain. “I speak Spanish, and I was there last year,” he said. He helped create two seders — for 80 on the first night, and 40 on the second. “It was beautiful,” he said. “The people were from all over, and there was a very good atmosphere.”
Levy Dray, 20, had it a little harder: The Paris native was sent to eastern Ukraine. “It was really cold,” he said. He and his partner helped make a seder in the city of Lugansk, where pro-Russian protesters had occupied government buildings the week before. Though things were tense, the students didn’t experience any danger. They were careful, barely leaving their hotel.
Things were more relaxed for Russian-born Yehuda Ivanov, 25, and Dovid Zaltzman, a 19-year-old from Toronto. They traveled — via two flights and an eight-hour train ride — to Almata in Kazakhstan. The country has a fairly thriving Jewish population, but in Almata, the seder is the one communal celebration of the year. Local people did most of the cooking, but the emissaries helped out by peeling mountains of potatoes. They and the other Chabad folks didn’t get to relax and eat until all the guests had been fed. “Our own seder went on until 5:30 in the morning,” Dovid reported with a grin.
Mendy Wilschanski, 22, a Morristown native, found himself in Nigeria, both in Lagos and Abuja, the capital city where there have been a number of recent terrorist attacks by radical Islamists.
Aside from the 100-degree heat that made him jettison his black suit jacket (“We didn’t want people to think Jewish people are crazy,” he said), Wilschanski had to navigate Nigeria’s multi-layered bureaucratic corruption. His tasks ranged from buying fish — “They told me ‘under the bridge’ was the place to go,” he recalled — sourcing kosher wine, and delivering matza to 180 Jews around Lagos.
Their seder in Lagos, expertly cooked by a local woman, attracted about 40 people, among them a Jewish Iraq war veteran who was working at the United States embassy, and about 30 Israelis.
Not every event was as successful. On the Friday before Passover, no one showed up for Shabbat dinner at the Chabad center. As Wilschanski told his story, Herson reminded him, “When people complain about a small turnout, what did the Rebbe” — the late Lubavitch leader Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson — “used to say? ‘How many mothers did Moses have?’”
“But what can you do if no one at all comes?” Wilschanski responded.
At last, he recalled, one man arrived, and that changed everything. “It turned out this guy was starting a wholesale business importing kosher wine,” Wilschanski related. “He said he had half a case of sample bottles that we could have. We were ecstatic. We ended up talking with him for hours. That’s when you see God runs the world.”
Mendel Wuensch and Zev Rosenblum, both 19, had perhaps the cushiest assignment: They stayed at the mountain holiday resort of Bariloche, in Argentina. Though the resident Jewish community is tiny, the transient population of Israeli backpackers is enormous.
In peak season, between 700 and 1,300 visit the Chabad house each day. For the public seder in a hotel reception room, they had 500 celebrants — far fewer than usual.
The shluchim were inspired, Rosenblum said, by the way “these people who had come to see the beauty of the mountains were spending the whole day like this, helping prepare the seder, just to be in the warmth of that environment.”
A few days earlier, Rosenblum and Wuensch were at a local supermarket when a local woman noticed their yarmulkes and got chatting. It turned out she was Jewish, with 17-year-old triplet sons.
“I asked, ‘Would they like to have a bar mitzva?’ Come tomorrow night to the Chabad house,’” Rosenblum said. For him, it was the perfect example of “finding that spark that is in every Jew.”
She did come the next night, with her three boys and a crowd of their school friends. Rosenblum and Wuensch admitted the food wasn’t great, but the joyful celebration more than made up for it. And the family and many of their friends came back on Monday night for the communal seder. “And now they have a connection with the rabbi,” Wuensch said.
Herson and Solomon listened to the students, beaming with approval. “They are very motivated,” Herson said, “and they learn to be very adaptable.”
Asked if they would do it again, all seven young men immediately said yes. “We’re getting the world ready for ultimate redemption,” Rosenblum said.