Each year, Chabad of South Dakota distributes hundreds of lbs. of matzah to the local Jewish community. Usually, we like to purchase these matzahs from a bakery in Israel. It's the eternal Jewish homeland, and the holy place we pray for every day. But this year, I will be giving every Jewish home in SD matzah. . . that was baked in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine.
Ukraine is home to a large Jewish population, by some estimates as many as 400,000 Jewish people. Today they are facing unprecedented war, hunger and a refugee crisis. And if the Midwest is known as America's breadbasket, Ukraine is Europe's breadbasket. So I was not surprised to learn that Ukraine also exports some fine matzah.
There is also very significant historic and spiritual relevance to matzah from Dnipropetrovsk. The Rebbe's father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson (1878 – 1944), was the chief rabbi there for over thirty years. As the leader of the community, he unapologetically stood up to the communist regimes, and risked his life to ensure that even under their oppression the matzah baked in Ukraine would be kosher to the highest standard. His ironclad commitment to his people and faith, led to his persecution and arrest at the hands of the KGB. He was imprisoned, tortured and interrogated and eventually died in harsh circumstances while in Soviet exile. Years later the KGB would apologize.
This year, as we celebrate our freedom, and the blessings we are fortunate to have living in America, let us remember our brothers and sisters in Ukraine who baked these matzahs. Let us hope and pray that they too, will be able to enjoy their matzah in true freedom.
Maybe this will also stand as a testament to the dedication and ultimate self-sacrifice of the Rebbe's father, and the original Ukrainian matzah.
We celebrated Purim yesterday, and being able to read the megillah and fulfill the mitzvahs of Purim with such a vibrant and loving community atmosphere was very special.
Why is the Purim megillah named after Esther, the Jewish heroine, Megillat Esther. Why not Megillat Esther and Mordechai? Wasn’t Mordechai also a hero in the story?
Yesterdays, jam packed, fun filled, Purim party, helped me understand one reason why the singular focus on Esther.
Along with 70 others attendees, two Jewish women, mothers of young children, drove their families for several hours to join. Shannon did a 3.5 hour drive from Leola, and Shay drove 5 hours all the way from Rapid City! They did this all to give themselves and their children the opportunity to participate in the Purim celebration.
As a parent of young children myself, I know what a long drive means.
This is what commitment and dedication looks like. This is the power of the Jewish woman. Like Esther in her time, doing whatever it takes to ensure Jewish continuity, with pride and joy… and even a super long drive!
Several weeks ago at our Shabbat experience we played a Jewish trivia game. One of the questions was “what makes someone a Jewish hero today?”
As we went around the table, friends offered a number of suggestions, ranging from Ruth Bader Ginsburg to IDF soldiers, from Ben Shapiro to Bernie Sanders. The ideas literally spanned the spectrum of Jewish thought and politics. But they were all shared with love. That’s what is so beautiful about our Jewish community. Everyone is welcome, and everyone has a place. It really is mishpacha, family.
But over the past few weeks I had an idea of another type of Jewish hero: Chaya and Rabbi Avraham Wolf from Odessa.
One of the organizations they run is the Mishpacha Orphanage where they care for some 150 precious children. With war looming, they desperately tried to obtain the necessary documentation to secure an exit for the children. But to no avail.
Finally, just over a week ago, after war had already broken out, they got the last birth certificate needed, and over the next few days a convoy of buses left Odessa carrying children, women, and elderly people. Through a treacherous journey that was documented by the AP, they traveled for more than 50 hours through several countries, until reaching Berlin where they are now.
As the head of the orphanage, Rabbi Wolf accompanied the final bus to leave.
But once making sure that every child under his responsibility had safely arrived, Avraham did the unthinkable. He got on a train and went straight back to Odessa. He still shoulders the responsibility of those in the Jewish community who can not leave (males between ages 18-60, elderly women and men, and the disabled).
While others are fleeing from Ukraine, Rabbi Wolf couldn't get back fast enough.
Rabbi Wolf and his wife Chaya are Jewish heroes today. This may be the story of one couple, but just like one small drop of water can reflect the entire sun in it -- so long as it's clear and facing the sun -- it reflects the good work of the 200+ Chabad Rabbis' their wives and children currently serving the Jews of Ukraine. They are the Jewish heroes of the hour.
Let us take inspiration from them.
Purim is next week, and while we are living comfortably here in the United States, we are still called upon to be heroes. Like Mordechai and Esther in their times, and the Jews of Ukraine today, each of us has a unique role to play.
With prayers for the safety of the people in Ukraine.
Cable news was recently reeling from the two-week suspension of TV icon, Whoopie Goldberg, after her remarks regarding the Holocaust and racism against Jews.
I’m not going to delve into the validity of her statement, where she was coming from, the Black and Brown Jews she forgot about, and her understanding of race and racial marginalization, and persecution. I’ll leave that for others. I want to talk about something she said later that evening on the Stephen Colbert Late Show that struck me, profoundly.
Whoopie attempted to apologize and explain why she feels her experience with racial tension in America is different (perhaps more difficult) than what a Jew may experience. She explained
that because the color of her skin gives her race away, it makes her vulnerable to persecution from a stranger on the street. Therefore, you can’t compare her experience to that of her Jewish friends because “you can’t tell who is Jewish... they don’t look Jewish.”
Hold up, Whoopie :) you just conveniently canceled my husband and the large and growing portion of the Jewish community who will always wear a kippa/yarmulka and tzitzit and are clearly identifiable as Jews. And though our experience in South Dakota has only been positive, in other parts of the world, those who wear traditional Jewish attire, can find themselves as targets of unprovoked attacks.
Not only has our personal experience only been positive, we love it that Mendel is so identifiably Jewish. He can hardly walk through the Costco, HyVee, the library, and Washington Pavilion without getting a “Shalom” or “Good Shabbos” from a Jewish passerby he hasn’t met before, and so many non-Jewish people will come up to him and engage in meaningful and friendly conversations about Judaism and Israel. His Kippa, and tzitzit is the greatest built-in marketing, if you ask me.
I can’t wait for my little Levi to start wearing a kippa of his own so that I too can be more identifiably Jewish when I go around town with him and hopefully make some more Jewish friends.
But I digress, Whoopi’s comment about Jews not being identifiable, hit me hard. Maybe she is right?
And how do I feel about that?
Do I like that I can attempt to hide my Jewishness at times?
When I think I might be served better if others didn’t know it?
Do I sometimes rely on my whiteness and religious anonymity to keep life simple and undramatic?
Should I be doing that?
I believe Whoopi’s comment on the Colbert Show is a moment that calls for internal introspection for all of us.
Are we loud and proud Jews?
Do our neighbors, coworkers, and friends know us as loud and proud Jews?
Do they see us joyfully celebrating our unique heritage and holy traditions?
This reminds me of the young child, a member of our Juda Enrichment club, who signs all her school work with a beautiful Star of David near her name. She does this on her own initiative. Good for her!
And of the young Jewish professional in town, who when we moved here, we kept hearing from everyone we met, “Oh! _____ is Jewish, we know her.” "Who is this woman that everyone who has crossed paths with her, knows her as a proud Jew, we thought?"
These people inspire me.
Purim is coming up. Queen Esther in her time, temporarily hid her Jewishness, upon Mordechai’s advice, up until she realized that her fellow Jews survival was on the line. And then she spoke up. Loud and proud. May we all take the strength from Esther to be proud of our Jewishness, because any repercussions that may come our way, are small and insignificant in comparison to the great awesomeness of being a Jew. We are fortunate to have a rich history and heritage, and following our lead, everyone who knows us can rejoice in our uniqueness, as they discover their own.
Thank you, Whoopie, for the opportunity you gave me, to grow.
Last year, at the conclusion of the Passover festival I turned on my phone and saw I had a voicemail from Ross Lerner. He lives in a town some 160 miles away from Sioux Falls with a population of about 3000. He is the only known Jew in the town. In his voicemail, he thanked me for the matzah gift, that we proudly deliver or ship to every Jewish home in South Dakota.
That every Jew be able to celebrate Passover, and have matzah for the holiday, was something very important to the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. He distributed matzah himself, sending to Jews in under-served communities like those in the former Soviet Union and Morocco, or a lonely Jew in Tyler, Texas, or Dakar, Senegal, and always encouraged rabbis and communal leaders around the world to ensure everyone in their communities had as well.
Each of the boxes we gave last year contained 3 matzahs, the prescribed portion for a traditional Seder. The Kabalistic masters teach how matzah is the “bread of faith” that strengthens our faith in G-d and reminds us of His protection at our Exodus from Egypt. Many have told me how this is especially meaningful for them. Without it, there are simply no options for matzah in South Dakota. It is not something you can just pick up at a local Hy Vee or Costco. Authentic kosher matzah can also be pricey, sometimes costing $30 per lbs, before shipping.
But Ross didn’t just call to share his gratitude. In a choked voice he said that to his surprise, the box only contained 3 matzahs. “Rabbi, how could you let me down like that!?” And he was right. A person really needs 6 matzahs, 3 for each Seder on both nights of the festival. Ross went on to say that he did some research and discovered that matzah is made of only plain flour and water - just like our ancestors had when they left Egypt - and that it must all be baked within 18 minutes. Then he continued, and I will never forget what he said next “I realized I have flour, and I have water. So I cleared out my oven and made matza so I can have it for the second Seder.”
That’s it. That’s the story.
Somewhat dumbfounded and awestruck, I immediately called him and told him how precious his matzahs must be in the eyes of G-d. In other places where Jewish amenities are abundant, some might spend weeks deciding on their preferred matzah vendor, and pay a premium for the finest matzah baker. But it was his homemade matzahs that actually carried with them the tears, love, joy and feelings of our beautiful tradition. If only we could all eat our matzah with the same sincerity and fervor.
Several months later I repeated this story to Barbara & Larry Ellberger, and their children Aliza & Ruven, and Eytan and Shai, friends from New Jersey who generously helped sponsor the matzah for the South Dakota Jewish community for several years. They were so moved by this that they immediately decided to increase their contribution to ensure that every Jew in South Dakota can have enough matzahs for two Seders.
This is the Jewish spirit. This is the meaning of “mitzvah goreres mitzvah,” one good thing leads to another, and the reward for the Mitzvah is the Mitzvah itself.
So this year, as we celebrate Passover, let us take a bite of the bread of faith, with true faith and determination. Let us be proud of our heritage and traditions. Proud of the beauty of our holy Torah and its commandments, and let us live them better on a daily basis. L’shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim!
Rabbi Mendel Alperowitz Blog and Mussie's Musings
Serving the spiritual needs of the South Dakota Jewish community. Based in Sioux Falls and travels the state.