On a Friday morning, Lenny Ross packed his van full of Matzo, grape juice, candles, and food. A local Chabad rabbi assigned Lenny an unusual mission: he would bring Passover meals to a group of Jewish Ukrainians who are awaiting entrance to the United States.
Two weeks earlier I contacted Rabbi Polichenko and now on a hunch, I called him to check. You see, the rabbi never called me, he just made sure to make it happen. As I learned about Lenny making his way to Tijuana, I had to frantically call the volunteers at the refugee camp or as we call it “Hub” to make sure that the very nice Christian volunteers wouldn’t by accident throw out a random Jewish guy who was trying to get unauthorized access into the camp.
I called my contacts inside and they assured me that Lenny would be welcomed and assured to have a great seder.
One hundred years ago, Jews sided with Russia in hopes of surviving. As a result, 100,000 Jews perished at the hands of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers during the war of Ukrainian independence. 20 years later, some Ukrainians participated in the genocide while others worked hard to save Jews. The memories of the betrayal exist to this very day. That is until Putin invaded Ukraine, resulting in the Jews of Ukraine becoming one Ukrainians as a nation, and similarly, ethnic Ukrainians banded together with the Jews.
While Ukrainian Jewish men fight on the frontline, Ukrainian women and children find their way out of harm’s way, and some, just like thousands of Ukrainians, found their way to Tijuana in hopes of making it into the United States.
Having worked on the border for three weeks I have seen them there. There was an Orthodox family with a boy walking around in a kippa and a young man from Odessa who said: “Shalom, Mah nishma?” when he saw my Tel Aviv shirt.
I imagined what it must be like for these Jews who must feel like a minority in this big camp where everyone is predominantly Christian. I thought about how they must feel after losing everything and how alone they must feel on this holiday that celebrates freedom and escape from harm and bondage.
When I called Rabbi Polichenko, I didn’t have to ask twice. He said yes and as I said before, without a reminder, a seder was created. I was told that there was wine, matzo, food, and songs as I couldn’t be there, I was at my family seder, watching my daughter’s bright eyes looking at the food and the candles. But the pictures from 40 minutes south brought joy to my heart. Because while I work hard as a Ukrainian Jew to do all in my power to end this war and help provide for those who lost everything, it made me feel better that my people are also taken care of and that my Christian friends helped to take care of this tiny minority in their midst just as I do my best to help them.
Fifty people, Jews, and Christians came together for the seder. They came together to celebrate freedom, to celebrate community and the ability to take care of each other. This ability to take care of each other, and help each other is the antidote. It is the opposite of Putin who forces mothers to send their children to kill and die. It is the opposite of not picking up the bodies of the dead, not feeding or supplying the soldiers. It is the opposite of the idea of killing thousands for political aims or personal vendetta.
We are the opposite because we celebrate our differences because we work together to help each other in spite of our differences. We find and respect the humanity of each other first and ignore the differences in religion or ethnicity. The differences remain, but there is no reason why they should separate us.
And so, the kids lit the candles, sang the song Dayanu (enough), and found the afikoman (hidden matzah). They had a small sense of normality, in a foreign country, in a place where they might feel safer but not secure. We helped their parents remember, that while they might be refugees, they are never abandoned, never alone.
In the end, that is Passover: the idea of a man who escaped, to come back and help his people also find an escape. Thirty years ago, my family escaped and I felt guilty about leaving behind all who remained. Today, I got to help them escape as well, and find purpose and good in that escape, so many years ago.
Because in the end, Passover is the idea, that everyone deserves to live free.