This year, 650 young rabbinical students left their families for Passover, choosing instead to bring the holiday spirit to Jewish communities all over the world. Travelling to such far-flung locales as Iceland, Italy, China, India, Rwanda, Ghana, New Zealand, Poland and Russia – and some places closer to home, like Texas, Florida and California – the teams of dedicated volunteers did whatever was required so that locals and tourists alike could celebrate the eight-day festival of freedom.
Dispatched from Brooklyn, N.Y., by Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, the young men are popularly known as “Roving Rabbis.” Many of their experiences over the past several weeks were followed by thousands of people from the students’ collective blog hosted by the Judaism website Chabad.org.
“The goal of this program is to give every Jew, no matter where he or she may be, the opportunity to participate in a Passover Seder,” said Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch. “The young rabbis make the Passover experience accessible, inviting, and relevant to every Jew, everywhere.”
“This year was definitely the biggest so far,” stated program coordinator Rabbi Schneur Nejar. “In past years, there were times I had to try to fill positions. This year though, we were full almost immediately after we opened registration for volunteers.”
To prepare for their missions, the young recruits were briefed on their assignments and counseled by veterans of past trips. For many, the isolation of some locations can present a shock.
“In some of the more remote locations,” Nejar explained, “the boys have to do everything. They are rabbis, cooks, and janitors.”
They left Brooklyn with boxes of prayer books and handmade matzah, cartons of kosher meat, and beaming smiles.
They were received with open arms.
“[Our children are] hungry for this,” said Barry Katz, a resident of Destin, Fla., as he watched his child participate in a model matzah bakery organized by Levi Mentz and Hirshy Sputz.
Similar comments could be heard in all 58 countries the rabbis visited.
Eileen Mills of Kenai, Alaska, said that meeting with the two roving rabbis that came to her area bolstered her spirit. She hadn’t seen another observant Jew since she moved there 11 years ago, and savored the opportunity to speak about religious and cultural issues.
In Poland, a local man walking through the Warsaw ghetto donned the Jewish prayer boxes known as tefillin for the first time when he met other roving rabbis. Afterwards, he thanked them profusely.
“It’s about showing love to all the Jewish people,” explained Boruch Gancz, who was dispatched to Marquette, Mich.
Nejar is currently focusing on the summer, when the next crop of rabbinical students will spend several weeks in places not served by full-time Chabad-Lubavich emissaries. With an average of 500 volunteers who sign up, it takes a lot of planning.
“The boys work hard,” he said, “and every year it’s a success.”