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Bringing Light to Bershad, Ukraine

Bringing Light to Bershad, Ukraine

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We arrived in Bershad, Ukraine, on Sunday afternoon after a five-hour journey from Zhitomir on unpaved dirt roads. The first thing that struck us was the overwhelming poverty—decaying infrastructure, primitive housing, and an almost tangible sense of hopelessness. These feelings were compounded by our knowledge of Bershad’s Jewish history: tens of thousands of Jewish souls were massacred in the Bershad ghetto during the Holocaust, may G‑d avenge their blood.

After getting acquainted with our dismal surroundings, it was time to move on. We hadn’t come for the sightseeing, or lack thereof; as participants of the Roving Rabbis Program founded by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, we were entrusted with the mission to spread joy, light, and Judaism.

The next 24 hours passed quickly. We had to kosher the pots and pans we would need, scrub our modest motel room, search for and burn the chametz, and shop and cook for the Seder. Almost before we could catch our breath, we were welcoming our Seder guests at the entrance of the small room we had rented in the center of town. Eleven people joined us. They drank the four cups of wine, enjoyed the handmade matzah, and listened attentively to the story of the Exodus, which clearly resonated with some of the elderly guests. We were assisted by Chaim, the leader of the community, who translated our Yiddish into Russian.

After the conclusion of the formal part of the Seder, our guests chose to stay longer, enjoying the camaraderie and festive atmosphere. We served dessert, fresh fruit, and noticed how a little girl, the only child in attendance, took the fruit and immediately stuffed it into her bag. That sight tugged at our hearts, a vivid reminder of the abject poverty in this region. Quickly, we gave her some more fruit so she could eat some now and take some home. She and her grandmother thanked us repeatedly.

The conversation soon segued into the inspiration behind our visit: the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who founded this program to bring Passover Seders to everywhere there are Jews. We shared some stories to demonstrate that the Rebbe genuinely loved and cared for every Jew.

It was clear that our words had deeply impacted the crowd. In a flash of inspiration, we decided to distribute something we had brought—small business cards with a picture of the Rebbe on one side, and information about the Rebbe’s resting place in Queens, New York, on the other. They accepted it reverently, and we even witnessed two teenaged boys fighting over one card. Fortunately, we found one more and everyone left in good spirits.

The next night, we were on our way back to the motel after another beautiful Seder. We were pleasantly surprised to bump into the little girl and her grandmother from the previous night (they had not joined us for this second Seder). They were also excited to see us, and after we exchanged greetings, they presented us with a request. Could we please mention their names at the Rebbe’s resting place in New York, and pray to G‑d to grant them blessings, success, and happiness? Of course, we agreed.


Nearly 21 years after his passing, the Rebbe’s influence is still very much alive. His vision illuminates the darkness of Bershad, reinvigorating the Jews there, and enabling them to feel that the deeper messages of Passover can affect their lives and their future.


Elazor Cohen & S.Z. Epstein
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