Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski, Russia — Approximately 5,250 miles from Zabars in New York City, 5,680 miles from Jerusalem – and, in April, still resting peacefully under several feet of fresh snow – Kamchatka may be the last place in the world you’d expect to find a Jew diligently grating maror for a seder.
Nonetheless, it was in this regional capital of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski that young Lubavitch emissaries Shaya Vselyubsky and Mendel Kosenko found themselves this Passover assiduously preparing a holiday meal for the tiny local community.
Located nine time zones from Moscow at the easternmost edge of the Russian federation, Kamchatka serves as a reminder of the enigmatic nature of this massive country and its widely dispersed ethnic and cultural minorities.
Inaccessible by road or rail from continental Russia, and with
air travel to and from the region prohibitively expensive, the peninsula stands apart from the rest of the country, making its Jewish community of roughly 300 one of the most geographically isolated in the world.
Communities like this, too small to support their own rabbi but wanting to re-establish their Jewish history and traditions, are why Chabad-Lubavitch trained and deployed 75 yeshiva students to lead Passover seders across the former Soviet Union this week.
The group, comprising 56 Americans and 29 Russian and Ukrainian natives trained to prepare and lead kosher seders, represents another aspect of Chabad’s increasingly expansive presence throughout the FSU.
The shluchim, or emissaries, in Kamchatka, both FSU natives, represent Chabad’s recent push to transition away from foreigners to native speakers.
“If I had it my own way, I’d send only Russians,” said program director Rabbi Ze’ev Wagner, a Russian native himself.
Wagner believes that Russian students who better understand the “language and mentality” of the community are more suitable than enthusiastic Americans for what Chabad clearly perceives as an essential part of its regional outreach.
A microcosm of that dichotomy can be seen even between Vselyubsky, 20, who is making his second visit to the city, and Kosenko, 21, who is making his third.
The thickly bearded Kosenko, who rarely raises his voice above a whisper, embodies the reserved manner Wagner mentioned. Vselyubsky, exuberant with a beaming smile, excels in personal interaction, especially with children. He is well versed in Russian literature and poetry, and has a passion for the theater.
The different paths that brought them to Chabad also illuminate the disparities in their approaches. Kosenko, who was born in Volgograd but moved to Kharkov, Ukraine, when he was 15, came from a family with a traditional Jewish background. His two brothers study and work with the organization.
Vselyubsky came to Judaism and Chabad much later in life. His parents enrolled him in a Jewish school in his native Lugansk, Ukraine, at age 13. They aren’t particulary observant; they just thought he would receive the best possible education available.
The following year, fascinated by what he had learned, Vselyubsky had a late bar mitzvah – after a brit milah – and has been actively involved in Chabad ever since.
Beyond transporting kosher food from Moscow and figuring out the logistical details of organizing and leading seders, the two emissaries’ duties are considerable. In addition to three seders over two nights, there was a bowling excursion for children and a Shabbat dinner, as well as the koshering of the kitchen and food preparation.
But their biggest difficulty was meeting the needs of a community that has little formal Jewish education. For this reason, the seders they conducted would seem strange to most people unfamiliar with the community’s needs. In fact, by most Western standards, they would be unrecognizable.
Conducted in a room at a local library, the services were held entirely in Russian, not the Yiddish that many older congregants still speak or the Hebrew that many of the young seemed so eager to attempt.
“We don’t want them to get bored,” Vselyubsky explained. “There’s not enough time to teach them Hebrew while we’re here.”
The only song came at the beginning of the seder, when the 15 steps of a seder were repeated to a lilting tune. The services, led by Vselyubsky, seemed to focus as much on the opinions of the Lubavitcher rebbe as on aspects of the Exodus.
But there were many similarities to a typical seder, too.
Diana, 7, presented the Four Questions, at one point panicking and mysteriously losing her voice. Vselyubsky quickly hoisted her into his arms, however, and helped Diana complete them.
Gefilte fish was plentiful. And a 73-year-old grandmother who introduced herself as Bella Moiseyevna interrupted frequently with ribald jokes that broke up the audience, proving that no matter how far away, Jews are Jews.
The trip was not without its dangers, although Chabad representatives in Moscow insist there never have been significant incidents of anti-Semitism against emissaries traveling in remote areas of Russia.
While visiting a natural hot spring in the neighboring town of Elizovo, a reporter witnessed a heated exchange between the emissaries and an intoxicated young man that seemed close to becoming violent.
After delivering a profanity-laced lecture over several tense minutes about the uselessness of religion and the idiocy of the emissaries’ traditional garb, the young man, at the behest of another youth who had reticently taken to the emissaries’ defense, staggered out of the dressing room and into the freezing night air.
Vselyubsky insisted that the confrontation was “not uncommon in the regions of Russia,” but the absence of his normal ebullient laughter on the drive back to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski showed how much it had shaken him.
But Vselyubsky denied that the incident might deter him from returning to Kamchatka for next year’s seder.
“Unless the messiah comes and we have our next Pesach in Jerusalem,” he said with a broad smile, “I’ll be in Kamchatka.”