Suburban Jews begin Passover holiday thinking of Ukrainians, right down to the matzah

  • Rabbi Yaakov Kotlarsky of Chabad of Arlington Heights and his family have been distributing Ukrainian matzah at the Jewel on Rand Road in Arlington Heights, for people to use during Passover Seder in honor of Ukrainians.

    Rabbi Yaakov Kotlarsky of Chabad of Arlington Heights and his family have been distributing Ukrainian matzah at the Jewel on Rand Road in Arlington Heights, for people to use during Passover Seder in honor of Ukrainians. Courtesy of Rabbi Yaakov Kotlarsky

  • "At this time, hope and healing are desperately needed," says Rabbi Meir Moscowitz, of Lubavitch Chabad of Northbrook, speaking about Ukrainians fleeing war. He has urged his congregation to come together this Passover in solidarity with Ukrainians by "strengthening our own Seders."

      "At this time, hope and healing are desperately needed," says Rabbi Meir Moscowitz, of Lubavitch Chabad of Northbrook, speaking about Ukrainians fleeing war. He has urged his congregation to come together this Passover in solidarity with Ukrainians by "strengthening our own Seders." Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • Karyn Kedar

    Karyn Kedar

  • Rabbi Yaakov Kotlarsky

    Rabbi Yaakov Kotlarsky

 
 
Updated 4/15/2022 9:10 AM

After receiving a phone call from a fellow rabbi in Odessa, Ukraine, Rabbi Meir Moscowitz urged his Chabad of Northbrook congregation to come together this Passover in solidarity with Ukrainians by "strengthening our own Seders."

The Odessa rabbi, Moscowitz said, "called it a simple yet profound" gift for Passover, the tradition that Jews across the suburbs and world will begin observing starting at sundown Friday.

 

That's in addition to the practical help his congregation has been providing to Ukrainian refugees in neighboring European countries. "We are providing Seders there for those that are displaced," Moscowitz said.

Suburban Jewish community leaders are urging their congregations to keep Ukraine in their prayers during the holiday. They also are asking families to show support by setting extra places at the Passover Seder this year or by inviting strangers in a symbolic gesture to the thousands of Jewish Ukrainians who can't observe the holiday rituals in peace while war rages in their homeland.

Moscowitz, regional director of Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois, estimates there are about 350,000 Jewish people living in Ukraine, but thousands are displaced inside the country, having fled to safer locations, while thousands more have taken refuge in neighboring countries.

Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois has established a Ukraine Jewish Relief Fund at chabadillinois.com/ukraine.

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"While we, as a community, joyfully join together to celebrate the Passover Seder, especially after two years of COVID, we should keep in mind the needs of those suffering across the globe," Moscowitz said.

Chaikie Kotlarsky, wife of Rabbi Yaakov Kotlarsky of Chabad of Arlington Heights, and their daughters Rochel, 4, Rivka, 2, and Devorah Leah, 14 months, have been distributing Ukrainian matzah for Passover at the Jewel on Rand Road in Arlington Heights. They also offered a chance to win a Seder plate through a raffle.
  Chaikie Kotlarsky, wife of Rabbi Yaakov Kotlarsky of Chabad of Arlington Heights, and their daughters Rochel, 4, Rivka, 2, and Devorah Leah, 14 months, have been distributing Ukrainian matzah for Passover at the Jewel on Rand Road in Arlington Heights. They also offered a chance to win a Seder plate through a raffle. - Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer
Ukrainian matzah

Passover commemorates the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. Its rituals include retelling the story of the Exodus and eating Seder meals with wine, matzah (unleavened bread) and maror (bitter herbs).

The 50 Hasidic Lubavitch Chabad centers throughout the Chicago area and suburbs will be using shmura (guarded) matzah handmade in Ukraine for the first two days of Passover this year. That includes centers in Arlington Heights, Buffalo Grove, Deerfield, Elgin, Glenview, Gurnee and Vernon Hills.

"One of the largest matzah bakeries (in the world) is in Ukraine," Moscowitz said. "Some of the matzah that we are using is from there that we were able to get out before the war. It is the primary part of the Seder.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Many of the Chabad centers have community Seders, and we are also providing (the matzah) for the people that have their own family Seders."

Rabbi Yaakov Kotlarsky of Chabad of Arlington Heights and his family have been distributing the Ukrainian matzah at the Jewel on Rand Road in Arlington Heights this past week.

Chaikie Kotlarsky, wife of Rabbi Yaakov Kotlarsky of Chabad of Arlington Heights, and their daughters Rochel, 4, Rivka, 2, and Devorah Leah, 14 months, have been distributing Ukrainian matzah for Passover at the Jewel on Rand Road in Arlington Heights.
  Chaikie Kotlarsky, wife of Rabbi Yaakov Kotlarsky of Chabad of Arlington Heights, and their daughters Rochel, 4, Rivka, 2, and Devorah Leah, 14 months, have been distributing Ukrainian matzah for Passover at the Jewel on Rand Road in Arlington Heights. - Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

"It's the same matzah that our ancestors made," Kotlarsky said. "When this handmade matzah is eaten (we believe) it brings blessings of healing and it nurtures our faith.

"It's more special this year that we were able to get a large amount of Ukrainian matzah right before the war broke out. We will be remembering them and their story and their journey as we are celebrating Passover this year."

This year, the tradition of retelling the story of the Exodus will be much more poignant in the current context, said Rabbi Karyn Kedar, of Congregation B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim of Deerfield.

"We were slaves and then we were freed," Kedar said. "The Ukrainians, they are living the Passover Seder. They are being oppressed with hope for redemption, and all peoples around the world are reacting to that oppression with compassion and generosity. The obligation to be compassionate is ... to welcome the stranger in your midst."

A part of the Seder tradition is to open the door for the Hebrew prophet Elijah, who is a symbol of redemption.

"Jews all over the world will physically open their doors and say out loud, 'Let all of those who are hungry come and eat,'" Kedar said. "It wouldn't surprise me if many Jews had a seat empty at the (Seder) table or a cup for the Ukrainian that couldn't come."

Sending supplies

Kedar's congregation has been collecting essential supplies for Ukrainians, including canned goods, medicines and hygiene products that are being distributed there through the JDC, a global Jewish humanitarian organization.

The Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago also has been working to support roughly 200,000 Ukrainian Jews since before the war began, and particularly during Passover.

"We are organizing Seders for refugees in hotel rooms across Europe," President Lonnie Nasatir said. "We are sending Haggadahs (Passover Seder texts). And then we are making sure to also deliver kosher food to those that keep kosher.

Lonnie Nasatir
Lonnie Nasatir

"People are being mobilized," Nasatir said. "They provide a safe and comfortable Seder meal for those that are wanting to celebrate in neighboring countries in Eastern Europe."

While thousands of Jews have fled Ukraine, there are 40,000 of "the most vulnerable Ukrainian Jews" still there, Nasatir said.

"And we are not forgetting about them," said Nasatir, adding that many of those who remain in Ukraine are homebound elderly. "We are so focused right now on just survival and getting them what they need."

The group has been providing aid and other essential services through partner humanitarian agencies on the ground in Ukraine.

"We have raised close to $7 million just in Chicago for Ukraine relief," Nasatir said. The money goes to help with evacuation from Ukraine and provide temporary housing in neighboring countries.

Nasatir said the prevailing theme for Passover -- "this year we are slaves and next year we will be free" -- might resonate with all Ukrainians.

"These words have never been more true in our lifetime than it is right now," he said.

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