At about 4:40pm on Friday, an hour before the start of Pesach, we arrived at the main hall of the Kolkata Jewish Girls' School building. With the staff helping us set the tables for the Seder, we were ready just as the guests began trickling in.
The women lit the Shabbat and holiday candles, and everyone took their seats. About thirty people--mostly locals, one tourist from the UK, and two American Jews--gathered for the Seder, the first communal one to take place since the the Jewish community in Kolkata was founded some 200 years ago. What a monumental occasion! We introduced ourselves and commenced the evening with the holiday services, the highlight of which was a spirited rendition of the Hallel prayer.
The Seder began as is customary with the first cup of wine, and proceeded at a pleasant pace. When it was time for maggid, we went around the table reading the story of our slavery and redemption from Egypt aloud, with our input of insight and explanation.
When we distributed the hand-made shmurah matzah, the senior community members were overcome with emotion. They had not eaten shmurah matzah since the matzah bakery in the back of the Beth E-l synagogue had last produced matzah, more than fifty years ago!
The festive meal provided the opportunity to learn about some of our guests and schmooze. Beth had lived in a heavily Jewish area in the U.S. until her move to Kolkota in 2011, but for various reasons this was the first Seder she was attending in over twenty years. She thanked us profusely for allowing her to finally celebrate Passover.
After more stories and songs, we concluded the Seder with the heartfelt prayer of "L'Shana Haba'ah B'Yerushalayim- Next Year in Jerusalem!" We wished the participants a Good Yom Tov and invited everyone to join us again for Shabbat services the next morning, as well as the second Seder.
We were pleasantly surprised when a handful of people showed up early Shabbat morning. Two of them read Hebrew, and the others had fond memories of attending synagogue in their youth, and were so grateful for this rare opportunity to reconnect.
Saturday night, we began our Seder once again with the women lighting the candles, and the smaller, intimate crowd allowed us to lead the Seder with additional explanation and discussion. We sat closer together, and the atmosphere was a relaxed one, with everyone knowing each other from the previous Seder and already familiar with the steps of the evening.
At the conclusion of the Seder, the community thanked us for being there to lead the Pesach festivities- explaining that from the start of the community in the early 1800's until today, Kolkata never had a leading Rabbi, and at this point, with just about 25 members of the community, if they didn’t celebrate communally, they feared that all the traditions would be lost. True to our role as rabbis, we had to have the last word. We told them that we were in awe of their commitment to G‑d, which remained steadfast despite the tremendous challenges of lack of guidance and Jewish leadership.
On that note, we emotionally bade each other farewell, with much renewed spiritual energy on our part and theirs.