Rostov’s Rabbi on Pesach in Russia
I was lucky enough to speak to Rabbi Chaim Danzinger, the Rabbi of the Jewish Community of Rostov, Russia, about Pesach in Russia, and the reasons for it being a holiday like no other for Russian Jews. Described by the Jewish Chronicle as a “social media star”, Rabbi Danzinger shares aspects of Jewish life with his thousands of online followers, in addition to helping “provide for the material and spiritual needs of every Jew living in Rostov and the surrounding areas”, as the Jewish Rostov website highlights.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How is Pesach celebrated in Rostov? Is Pesach celebrated differently in Russia as opposed to in the US, where you were a Rabbi before moving to Rostov?
As far as Pesach celebrated in Rostov, we celebrate it by conducting several large community seders. We transform our entire synagogue, a Cantonist synagogue which was built 150 years ago, into a large Seder hall. We have a Seder there the first night, and a Seder there the second night. Parallel to that we have another Seder in our school which hosts families, and another one at the homes. So we have many hundreds of people attending these different seders.
Other than this, we also distribute 4 tons of matzah. And that’s because what’s unique about Jews in Russia in general, whereas around the world perhaps Yom Kippur is the most celebrated Jewish holiday, in Russia it is Pesach. Why? Because in Communist times, when it became practically impossible to maintain Jewish traditions, and to keep mitzvot (commandments), one mitzvah that no one could force the Jews not to keep was matzah. Why? Because what you do in the kitchen, what you eat, no one is going to force you, to say what you could eat, what you can’t eat. And that’s why for so many Jews from the Soviet Union, Judaism had a lot to do with the Jewish diet, with farshirovannaya riba (gefilte fish), forshmak, and of course matzah. So every Jew comes a year round, you might see that many Jews that you wouldn’t know, they’re Jewish, they don’t attend any services, they don’t come, they don’t announce they’re Jewish. But as Passover approaches, they make their way to Gazetnyy 18, which is the address of our synagogue, and they come for matzah. And that’s truly inspiring because they remember that this is their connection to their parents, to their grandparents, to their history – they remember as children when their grandparents went to get matzah or they’d bring flour to the synagogue so they could bake matzah, and that’s something that’s truly amazing and inspiring.
Today, under your leadership, Jewish life in Rostov is thriving. When you moved from the US what was the extent of the Jewish infrastructure in place, both in terms of religious activity and in terms of Pesach? Was there much interest in Pesach seders back then, and has this increased over the years?
Thankfully, there were rabbis before me, and they started from the fall of Communism and when Jews started coming together, so they started keeping Pesach. We, thank G-d, have seen a tremendous spike in people who are interested in celebrating in recent years, and especially this year. This year has been a challenging year. And then when things are uncertain, when there are challenges, when there are hardships, obviously people need more support.
And support is not just material support, which we’re doing our best to provide. It’s also guidance and spiritual support. And they come to synagogue for help and for guidance. So that’s something that we’re seeing and we’re doing a lot of. In general, in recent years, our focus has been on the youth, on the future as well as the elderly segment of the community, which is people that have no family, no relatives, they’re alone and we give them support, and make them feel needed and loved.
What is truly unique about Jews in Rostov that are observing Pesach?
In Rostov we don’t have any Kosher for Passover store. People here that are observing Pesach are doing so at tremendous sacrifice because they’re preparing all the food themselves. They’re not getting to buy Kosher for Pesach cakes, cookies, pizzas. What do they have nowadays? You walk into any kosher supermarket, they have everything kosher for Pesach. Here there’s nothing – there’s no potato starch, no cocoa powder. So they’re going back to the basics and, despite that, they’re doing it with tremendous pride and joy because they’re joyful for the real, genuine, authentic aspects of the holiday and that is leaving our hardships behind, leaving slavery and becoming a nation. And that’s something that today they’re doing and they’re an inspiration for us as Rabbi and Rebbetzin, and we get inspired by seeing their dedication and commitment to Judaism.
Thank you very much to Rabbi Danzinger for kindly giving up his time to answer my questions.