This Passover I sang Dayenu the same way I’ve been singing it my whole life. This year, however, I sang in a new place, surrounded by new communities, participating in the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s FSU (Former Soviet Union) Pesach Project. From March 24-29th, I visited and engaged with Belarussian Jewish communities in Minsk, Mogilev, and Vitebsk. The program was started ten years ago to provide these underserved communities with leadership needed in order to hold Passover seders. Today, students help lead seders and educational programs in the communities they visit, though the program functions more as a cultural exchange, providing the communities and the students the opportunity to learn from each other’s traditions. Paired with a conference on Berlin Jewry that took place the previous three days, it made for an emotionally-laden, historically-conscious experience I will never forget.
In Berlin, my classmates and I toured and studied the Jewish story in Berlin, concentrating on the Holocaust. We stood outside the rebuilt Ephraim Palace, the eighteenth century home of a prominent Jewish family, and marveled at its grandeur, a symbol of the height of Jewish success in the city. We visited the site of the Wannsee Conference where the logistics of the Nazis’ Final Solution were decided by men who, at the end of the day, stopped to sit and enjoy the view of the picturesque lake right outside. Walking through the house, I remember feeling that my boots would never feel clean again, and wondered how anyone could, after seeing Ephraim Palace, see the Jews as less than human, as less than their German neighbors. We visited a deportation center, which listed the date of departure, destination, and number of Jews on each train. I found one that went to Minsk, its journey mirroring the one I was to take.
With all of this fresh in my mind, my group arrived in Belarus. We were quickly whisked away to Mogilev, where Soviet-era buildings could be found everywhere. When our translator pointed out a building that still bore the Stars of David that revealed its previous ownership, we were all shocked to see a remnant of the Jewish life that once existed, but had been suppressed for so long under Soviet rule. Helping to lead the seder that night, though, I was struck by the rejuvenation of Jewish life there: an active youth group, a small but enthusiastic community, and clearly dedicated leadership. When we visited the Jewish kindergarten the following day, we heard about the conviction of parents willing to drive across town to ensure that their children received a Jewish education. We saw 2- to 6-year-olds sing the same songs I sang when I was a child.
Nothing more clearly illustrated the progress the Jewish community had made since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, than the seder we attended in Vitebsk. We’d been told ahead of time that the youth group would be leading the seder, and therefore we were asked to lead only one section. The reason for this quickly became clear: over the course of the evening, we were blown away by the creativity, Judaic knowledge, and commitment these teens and young adults demonstrated. What a testament they were to the vitality and perseverance of the Jewish spirit!
Needless to say, singing Dayenu this year, with the backdrop of this life-changing trip, became very personal, as I was reminded anew how much I had to be thankful for, for the experience of this journey, as well as so many others over the years.
Nicole Berne is a first-year MAJE student from Los Angeles, CA. She graduated from Indiana University in 2011, majoring in English and history. Looking ahead, Nicole is excited to explore opportunities for pursuing social justice through Jewish education both in classwork and through hands-on community engagement.