'Let's drink to Ukraine!' Odesa Jews celebrate a wartime Passover under curfew
- The United Nations estimates 4.8 million Ukrainians, including many Jews, have fled their homes due to war.
- Sourcing food for a Passover Seder was difficult for many Jewish leaders amid a war that has wrought supply chain difficulties, left trucks stranded at borders and matzah stuck at the port.
- Odesa is home to one of the largest Jewish communities in post-Soviet Eastern Europe.
ODESA, Ukraine – They traveled to the historic hotel along the Black Sea through checkpoints and a darkened side entrance. Inside, the opulent lobby lights are off, and drapes are drawn. On a small entry table sit four stacks of matzah.
Welcome to Passover during wartime in this Ukrainian port city, where the remaining Jewish population celebrates freedom over tyranny even as their community has been scattered by war across Europe and the world, for the second time in the past century.
Inside the banquet hall, around 10 p.m., Igor Oks, 41, an event host who has helped French journalists report on the war, raises his glass of wine and quips in Russian, “The Black Sea opened like the Red Sea, and the Russian warship drowned in it.”
The crowd is determined to be festive, even as air sirens wail. A man rises and exhorts the gathering: “Let’s drink to life! Let’s drink to Passover!” He ends with “Let’s drink to Ukraine!”
The gathering of about 110 Jews from all strata of Odesan society at the 19th-century Londonskaya hotel erupts in claps and cheers at the reference to the destroyed flagship of the Russian fleet, which was probably the main threat to the city only days ago.
It’s hard to avoid discussion of war at this Friday evening Seder, which is an annual retelling of the story of Jewish freedom from Egyptian slavery. Ukrainian flags sit in a wine glass in the center of each table. The gathering is literally locked in for the night, behind barricaded checkpoints in the strategic military zone, the city’s first line of defense should Russia attack by sea.
Their voices rise in familiar song, growing stronger as the community’s rabbi, Avraham Wolff, urges them on. Slowly, faces creased with worry light up with joy, and, as the evening stretches on, more and more laughter.
“Nothing like last night – with the dim lights and guys with guns, and a hushed atmosphere of reverence – nothing about that was normal,” Vladislav Davidzon, a fellow at the Atlantic Council Eurasia Center, a Washington-based think tank, says the next morning.
The United Nations estimates 4.8 million Ukrainians have fled their country because of the war. In Odesa, Wolff estimates roughly 60% of the 35,000-member Jewish community, one of the largest in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, have left since Russia invaded Feb. 24.
“When we came to Odesa 30 years ago, we found 35,000 pieces of a puzzle, we collected them, put the pieces together, glue it and put it on the wall, then (Russian President Vladimir) Putin came with his tanks and broke it again into 35,000 pieces,” says Wolff, who heads the community’s Chabad synagogue and has worked double-time caring for his community during the war. “They’ve left from here, and they left for all over the world.”
Chabad, one of the largest Hasidic organizations in the world, engages in outreach to Jews internationally and hosts thousands of Ukrainian refugees at Seders across Europe this year. Wolff says it's not just Chabad. Jewish families around the world are "inviting in refugees" to their homes and helping tens of thousands of people in need. The effort, he says, has helped unite the Jewish community.
This year's celebration of Passover is unlike any other year in Ukraine, in large part because of the logistical nightmare of providing food that meets the requirements of Jewish law amid a war that has wrought supply chain difficulties, stranded trucks at borders, stuck matzah at the port, and depleted the synagogue’s store shelves to 10% of their typical Passover haul from places such as Israel.
Problematic at a more fundamental level is that the traditional evening gathering typically ends many hours past the city's 9 p.m. curfew.
Some families gathered early at the Chabad synagogue, beginning the Seder before the official holiday – a necessary wartime concession – before heading home for lockdown. At the Londonskaya hotel, Jewish families torn asunder by war mix with humanitarian workers, journalists, entrepreneurs and at least one Ukrainian soldier in military uniform wearing his traditional Jewish ceremonial fringes.
“This is all so surreal,” says Dina Kazatsker, 40, who works at a charity fund organizing medical aid. She and her husband, Oks, placed their two daughters safely in Slovakia with her mother. “The most surreal thing is seeing a Ukrainian soldier in his uniform with tzitzit hanging from it” as Putin talks about the “denazification” of Ukraine.
Grigory Vakulenko, 47, who manages a kosher restaurant in town that's been closed since the Russian invasion, threw himself into overseeing humanitarian aid and preparing for Passover.
"I'm almost certain that the Ukrainian nation will do the same as Jewish people did back in those days when we were in Egypt," Vakulenko says, speaking through an interpreter. "The Ukrainian passport is going to become a symbol of pride," and the country will be "a beacon of freedom" to the world.
Vakulenko says there were doubts that the gathering at Londonskaya would happen. The military ultimately OK’d it with some conditions. Among them, guests in rooms facing the sea must leave their bedroom lights off and keep their curtains closed.
“It was something out of a fantasy movie,” Vakulenko says. “But thank God we’re here.”
Despite the surreal nature of a celebration amid war, the days leading up to the major Jewish holiday fell into a familiar freneticism at the Chabad synagogue. As the city's only major synagogue with its doors still open, it saw daily lines of people waiting to buy provisions or pick up premade Seder boxes and holiday aid packages – with separate Seder plates, face masks and a first aid kit – from the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine.
Among those helping out by selling matzah at the synagogue before the holiday was Tamar Khusid, who sent her three kids to Berlin during the war's early days for their safety. She handed out boxes of matzah with a few words to people, well wishes for freedom – “that all of us will be free and nobody will try to liberate us, because we aren’t oppressed here.”
Two days before the holiday’s start, Vakulenko ticked off the numerous tasks on his list – making sure meat from the Ukrainian Kosher Committee and other holiday equipment got through multiple checkpoints and coordinating with the supply trucks making the journey from major European Jewish communities in Paris, Vienna and London.
The community ordered 12 tons of matzah, an unleavened bread traditionally eaten to commemorate the rush of Jews to leave Egypt before their bread could rise. Because of the war, it got stuck at the Odesan port and required weeks of work, contacting the government and port authorities, to get free, says Chaya Wolff, the rabbi’s wife.
Wolff was on her phone nonstop in the days before Passover trying to ensure the holiday’s logistics were taken care of, while calming the anxieties of her son organizing a Seder for refugees in Berlin and a nephew doing the same in Iasi, Romania.
Her father was imprisoned in Siberia for being Jewish when Josef Stalin ruled the Soviet Union. For Passover, “he had only refined sugar,” Wolff says, speaking at times in Russian. “We have a lot of matzah from last year, and we will find fruit. … So whatever happens, we will have more than my father had when he was in Siberia in prison during those times.”
For Oks, the event host, and many other Jews, their Ukrainian identity has been further burnished by Russia’s efforts to take control. As a Jew celebrating the exodus from Egypt, he says the war has become a visceral reminder of why freedom matters.
“The price of this freedom is so high, and I think thanks to this – and maybe it sounds strange to say thanks to this – but I say thanks to this, not only will we have this freedom, but we’ll understand what this freedom is for us,” Oks says. “Because we paid too high a price.”
Translation: Anna Vasylioglo
Tami Abdollah is a USA TODAY correspondent. Send tips via direct message @latams or email tami(at)usatoday.com