By Sarah Massry
For Jews living in the former Soviet Union and other Communist countries during the 1950s, observing Pesach, with kosher matzah and wine, was virtually impossible. Many of them tried with the limited resources available to them yet still were unable to observe the yom tov properly. During that era, there were numerous instances in which well-intentioned, but spiritually deprived, Jews actually baked matzah with chametz ingredients.
When Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z’l, then president of Agudath Israel of America, learned of their predicament, he recognized the need of the thousands of Yidden stuck in the Communist countries of the former Soviet Union. He worked tirelessly to clandestinely send them matzah and other basic Pesach necessities, using various humanitarian channels and Agudath Israel contacts in Switzerland.
The response was overwhelmingly positive. This gesture strengthened and gave hope to the Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Thus began Agudath Israel’s Overseas Passover Campaign, which brings the fundamental ingredients of a kosher Pesach to needy Jews around the world.
Over the years, as more and more Jews wished to observe the yom tov, demand for the Pesach products grew. Today Agudath Israel’s Overseas Passover Campaign continues to fill a vital need and remains a fitting tribute to Rabbi Sherer’s devotion and hard work. “There are many local organizations here in the United States which provide aniyei ircha with matzah and Passover necessities,” explains Rabbi Shlomo Gertzulin, executive vice president for finance and administration, Agudath Israel of America, “but we take care of those who seem to have been forgotten. The Overseas Passover Campaign ensures that all Yidden have the opportunity to properly observe Pesach.”
Rabbi Gertzulin explains that the Overseas Passover Campaign has made a real difference in the lives of many Jews living abroad.
“Over the years, our campaign has distributed millions of dollars of matzah, grape juice, and other Pesach products to tens of thousands of impoverished Jews who, even today, live in the former Soviet Union and in other countries once behind the Iron Curtain. The fall of communism brought thousands of Jews into the open, and reignited their hearts to observance of Yiddishkeit.”
Agudath Israel is grateful to work with some wonderful partners, organizations in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and other countries, which distribute the supplies for Agudath Israel. “These organizations act as our on-the scene shluchim; together we are able to help Jews keep Pesach,” says Rabbi Gertzulin. Among these partners, V’aad L’hatzolas Nidchei Yisroel, which is directed by HaRav Matisyahu Salomon, has established schools and kollels and fostered the growth of Jewish communities in the former Communist countries.
Incredibly, there is currently a community of shomrei Shabbos Yidden living in Gori, Georgia, Stalin’s hometown. Stalin and his henchmen burnt down shuls and tried to destroy any semblance of Yiddishkeit in that town; yet today, Stalin is dead and Yiddishkeit is alive in Gori. The Jews of Gori will be celebrating Pesach this year, thanks to the Agudath Israel Overseas Passover Campaign and its partner organizations.
“Several years ago I was able to travel to Kiev and other cities in Ukraine, as well as to communities in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Russia,” recalls Rabbi Gertzulin. “I witnessed the mesiras nefesh of the Jews who wanted to keep Pesach k’halacha. I saw the local matzah bakery and was tremendously impressed by the extraordinary dedication of those trying to keep Pesach properly under such difficult conditions.” v