How it Began
Over the course of the last few decades, the mass Seders organized in such exotic places as Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam have become a familiar symbol of Chabad’s international appeal and success. The “Seder at the top of the world,” held annually in Kathmandu for thousands of Israeli backpackers, is widely seen as the trendsetter in this arena. In truth, the first Chabad campaign to bring Passover to Jews in the Far East occurred more than eight decades before the 1988 debut of the Kathmandu event.
Some 4,000 kilometers to the northeast of Kathmandu lies the city of Harbin, China. Today home to more than ten million, Harbin would likely never have been more than a small village lost in the vastness of Heilongjiang province. In 1898, however, it was chosen as an administrative and operational base for the construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway, an extension of the Trans-Siberian Railway sponsored by the Russian government. With the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war in 1904, Harbin suddenly became a strategic linchpin for the transportation of men, equipment and supplies to the Russian naval bases at Vladivostok and Port Arthur. Amongst those men—who were ferried across Asia to meet the Japanese threat—were thousands of Jewish soldiers.
While the train carried him in the opposite direction, the Jewish soldiers in the east were not at all far from his mind.
No Barons at the Front
In late 1903 the crisis was already coming to a head; Russia already had nearly 200,000 troops in the area, and more were heading east. At the same time Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, the fifth rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch (known as the Rebbe Rashab), was heading west to Paris. While the train carried him in the opposite direction, the Jewish soldiers in the east were not at all far from his mind. He was extremely worried that come Passover, the festival of freedom, their difficult situation would be made only more desperate. Without matzah they would be deprived of basic nourishment, both physically and spiritually. In Paris, the rebbe hoped to enlist the help of the most influential Russian Jew of the era—Baron Horace Günzburg—in the effort to coordinate a Passover relief campaign with the imperial Russian authorities.
Amongst his many other distinctions, Günzburg was a founding member of the Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment Among the Jews of Russia. Ideologically, he and the rebbe almost always found themselves at odds with one another. Yet the latter apparently believed that the baron’s efforts to advance the cause of emancipation did derive from a genuine concern for the welfare of his Jewish brethren. It was Rabbi Shalom DovBer’s hope that while Günzburg might not sympathize with his religious sensibilities, he would yet be sensitive to the plight of the thousands of Jewish soldiers who had been sent to the front. On arriving in Paris, however, his suggestions were received with indifference.
Baron Günzburg—whose Jewish name was Naftali Tzvi—dismissed the rebbe’s concerns with a wry twist of Talmudic irony. “For Jews,” he said, “there is a resolution, there is yet a Second Passover (yidden hoben an eitze, s’iz doch faran a pesach sheni).” The learned baron was referring to the day, a month following Passover, when anyone who had missed the opportunity to offer the Passover sacrifice in the Temple was given a “second chance.”
Rabbi Shalom DovBer was not impressed with this show of erudition. “At the front,” he replied, “there are no barons. The soldiers are peasant Jews; they know nothing of such clever excuses (di soldaten zeinen proste yidden, zei veisen nit fun kein chochmes). They need to have matzah on Passover.”
Unfortunately, Rabbi Shalom Dovber’s effort to provide matzah during the first year of the war met with limited success. While some private individuals did support him, and the imperial government did aid in the distribution of matzah to soldiers at the front, he was unable to provide matzah on the huge scale that the situation demanded. These setbacks did not deter him from redoubling his efforts the next year, but he realized that he could not rely on the influence of any one individual; a far wider collaborative campaign would have to be orchestrated. In the middle of Kislev 5665 (November 1904) he decided that he must himself travel to S. Petersburg in order to get the campaign underway.
The production, transportation and distribution of matzah on such a scale would require a special permit that could be obtained only from the highest levels of the imperial government in S. Petersburg.
Once there, he wrote to Rabbi Yeshayahu Berlin—a wealthy and philanthropic chassid who was married to the rebbe’s first cousin—asking him to establish a centralized office to coordinate the public effort. In a letter addressed to R. Berlin on the sixth day of Chanukah 5665 (1904), he explained the pressing importance of establishing a broad and authoritative platform: “We must worry about [the provision of] matzah for our brothers on the war front while there is still time. As there are now many of our brothers there—perhaps up to forty thousand—it is impossible to achieve this through the donations of individuals alone; rather we must gather funds from all the townlets, so that even small contributions will add up and amount to a fitting sum . . .”
For his part, Rabbi Shalom DovBer proposed to mobilize the support of the townlets and individuals under his influence, and write to other important rabbinic leaders encouraging them to do the same. Amongst those leaders he listed his cousins, “the rabbis of Liadi, Babroisk, and Retzitze.” Respectively these were Rabbi Yitzchak DovBer Schneersohn, Rabbi Shmaryahu Noach Schneersohn and Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn. Together, the rebbes of the extended Schneersohn family could muster the vast support. In addition, he would seek the support of the non-chassidic rabbinic leadership, including “the rabbis of Brisk, Kovno, Vilna and Lodz.” Respectively: Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, Rabbi Zvi Hirsh Rabinowitz, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky and Rabbi Eliyahu Chaim Meisel.
Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn (1860–1920), the fifth rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch (known as the Rebbe Rashab)
From this point and on, Rabbi Shalom DovBer indicated his intention to direct operations from behind the scenes. He was adamant that the effort should not be characterized as a Chabad-Lubavitch campaign, but should rather be seen as joint undertaking for which all Jews must bear responsibility. When his son (and later successor) Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, who was then director of the yeshivah Tomchei Temimim in Lubavitch, suggested that the yeshivah office should issue letters of appeal for the matzah campaign, Rabbi Shalom DovBer wrote in reply, “Your proposal . . . doesn’t resonate with me, and I don’t advise it all . . . It is in the best interest of the matzah campaign that letters of appeal should be issued in each community by the rabbis who are most influential there . . .”
The yeshivah Tomchei Temimim, he argued, was established not to cater to all the specific ritual concerns facing the Jewish community at large, but specifically to educate Jewish youth, “to draw them to Torah and to try and plant fear of heaven in their hearts.” Rabbi Shalom DovBer drew a clear distinction between this educational project, which was distinctly Chabad in character, and the broader effort to strengthen Jewish observances such as Shabbat, kosher and matzah. “It is self-understood,” he wrote, “that each and every Jew, being that he is a Jew, must worry about this, and actively invest effort in this as much as he is able.” He insisted however, that in this matter, Tomchei Temimim “is like each and every private individual of our Jewish brethren,” no more and no less.
“The Jewish people can achieve anything. It is G‑d who bestowed the Torah and its commandments upon us. It was us that He chose to serve Him. He will help us. All that is required of us is action.”
In the Halls of Power
Far from attempting to delegate responsibility to others, the extant correspondence shows that Rabbi Shalom DovBer continued to work tirelessly to coordinate the communal effort. It soon became clear that the production, transportation and distribution of matzah on such a scale would require a special permit that could be obtained only from the highest levels of the imperial government in S. Petersburg. While Rabbi Shalom DovBer himself spent nearly a month in that city, he also had a very able proxy in the chassid R. Shmuel Michel (Samuil Aronovitch) Trainin, a wealthy and well-connected industrialist who lived in a large house on the prestigious Rizhsky Prospekt (Riga Avenue). Another individual whose efforts would prove invaluable in this regard was a certain Yitzchak Margolin. The latter may not have been especially religious, but Rabbi Shalom DovBer describes him as being passionately involved in negotiations on behalf of the committee. The previous year, Margolin had personally donated five hundred rubles to the cause. Now he promised to put his influence in government circles—and particularly his connection with the minister of transport and communication, Prince Mikhail Ivanovich Khilkov—to good use.
The odds, however, did not look good. As R. Shmuel Michel pointed out, the government itself needed to raise as much money as it could for the war effort, and was unlikely to sanction a competing campaign to raise money for Passover matzah. Rabbi Shalom DovBer was unmoved by such arguments. “The Jewish people,” he said, “can achieve anything. It is G‑d who bestowed the Torah and its commandments upon us. It was us that He chose to serve Him. He will help us. All that is required of us is action.”
The rebbe had finished the morning prayers, but was still wearing his tallit and tefillin. His eyes were red from crying.
Eventually, a committee was convened, Rabbi Shalom DovBer himself oversaw the preparation of all the necessary documentation, and a meeting with the Minister of the Interior—then Prince Pyotr Dmitrievich Sviatopolk-Mirskii—was scheduled for Friday, Tevet 15, 5665 (Dec. 11, 1904). But Margolin showed up late, and the meeting had to be rescheduled for the following Monday. Incidentally, it was on the day after the missed appointment, on Shabbat, Tevet 16 (Dec. 12), that the czar issued the Decree Concerning Plans for Improvement of the Social Order. Amongst other things, the decree offered a vague promise that some “unnecessary” discriminatory laws and restrictions aimed at ethnic and religious minorities would be removed. There was much political and social unrest in Russia during this time, and it seems that the authorities were inclined to make a show of progressive tolerance.
On Monday morning, the rebbe himself telephoned the house of R. Shmuel Michel at seven o’clock to make sure that he was awake and on schedule. At eight he telephoned again, and sent a messenger to visit Margolin and the third member of the delegation, the wealthy chassid R. Menachem Monish (Monyeh) Moneszohn. Their meeting was called for ten, and within twenty minutes of their arrival they found themselves in the minister’s presence. On reading the petition they presented, and hearing their presentation, he proclaimed the project to be both “fitting and necessary.” R. Menachem went directly from the meeting to report back to the rebbe, while the others went to their places of business. Arriving at the rebbe’s lodgings, he found that he had finished the morning prayers, but was still wearing his tallit and tefillin. His eyes were red from crying. The good news that R. Menachem brought set his heart at rest, but he remained as impatient as ever to bring the project to fruition.
Detail: The façade of R. Shmuel Michel Trainin's home, 48 Rizhsky Prospekt (Рижский пр., 48)
The inefficient arms of the imperial bureaucracy, however, took longer than they should have to process the necessary permit. Having spent nearly a month in the capital, Rabbi Shalom DovBer returned to Lubavitch. He may have been emptyhanded, but he had reason to be confident. Two weeks later he received a telegram from R. Shmuel Michel informing him that his efforts had not been in vain; the official permit had been issued. In his reply, Rabbi Shalom DovBer hardly paused to celebrate: “Thank G‑d,” he wrote, “that the permit was issued. Now you will surely hasten to convene the committee, propose a final course, and begin the holy work.” He continued to enumerate various practical and logistical considerations that must be taken into account, and advised the committee to spread the word via correspondence and the popular press, not only in Russia but also in Amsterdam, London and Berlin.
The Rebbe’s Letter
Now that the committee had received official sanction, the campaign to raise sufficient funds and the logistical arrangements for the production and distribution of the matzah could begin in earnest. As promised, Rabbi Shalom DovBer penned a public letter calling upon the Jewish population to rally in support of their brethren at the front. Much of the information provided in the opening paragraph of the letter has already been described above. But the greater part of the letter is an impassioned appeal to the sensitivities of the Jewish public:
“There are indeed many of our soldierly brethren who will not eat chametz on Passover so long as there soul is yet within them, but one cannot survive eight days without eating . . .”
Brothers! We must feel the hearts of our brethren at the war front, who are committed to difficulty and great danger, may G‑d save them. They are forfeiting their lives on behalf of our king and the land of our birth. It is as though they have been separated from life (may G‑d in His great kindness guard them from all sorrow and hardship, and bring them peacefully to their homes), especially those of the reserves, who have left their homes, their children and their possessions, and only to G‑d can they lift their eyes. We know how precious and how beloved the mitzvah of eating matzah is to each one of our brethren, and conversely, if one of our brothers is forced to eat chametz, how much his heart will be pained within him if even under the greatest duress he is forced to eat chametz on Passover. There are indeed many of our soldierly brethren who will not eat chametz on Passover so long as their soul is yet within them, but one cannot survive eight days without eating . . .
The letter continues in a similar vein for several pages, appealing not only to the religious sensibilities of the reader but also to his patriotic spirit, and to the ubiquitous sense of Jewish kinship:
“While sitting at the Seder on the eve of the forthcoming festival, they will decorate and crown their table with this splendor, that at least their unfortunate brethren are able to fulfill the commandment of matzah on this night . . .”
The main thing in war is fortitude and strength of heart . . . and on the other hand, weakness of heart and low spirits bring to great danger, for they cannot stand in the close combat of war . . . And what can cause our brethren lowness of spirit more than eating chametz on Passover, G‑d forbid, for the hearts of each one of our brethren utterly recoils from this. From this he may be more endangered than the extant danger alone that already threatens him. The observance of the mitzvah of eating matzah on Passover will strengthen the hearts of our brethren, and give them strength and fortitude to stand firm in war and to overcome the enemy with might . . .
If, due to G‑d’s kindness, we are quiet and at peace in our homes, it is incumbent upon us to participate in the pain of our soldier brethren . . . Certainly, each one of us has relatives who are soldiers in the war zone. We are obligated to save them and give them the strength and ability to stand in combat, and bestow upon them this lofty and exalted commandment, which will guard them and strengthen them. The sensitivity of hearts towards them [expressed] via this help will also strengthen their spirits and souls, by consolidating and uniting the feeling of our souls with them . . .
Finally, he appeals to the active role and the unique contribution that each individual can and must make, placing the onus of responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the reader:
I am sustained by the hope that every one of our Jewish brethren will be inspired, and desire with every ounce of their souls to take part in this great endeavor.
Whether a rabbi, a communal leader, a householder, or a simple laborer, each must act within their sphere of influence to achieve all that can possibly be achieved within the shortest possible time.
Small donations as well as large ones will be willingly received, but no one should withhold themselves from giving as much as they are able . . . Our brethren always receive the festival with extra love and affection . . . they will beautify the Passover of this year with the charity and great kindness done for our brethren who have departed from them to a place of bleak desolation (may G‑d guard over them). While sitting at the Seder on the eve of the forthcoming festival, they will decorate and crown their table with this splendor, that at least their unfortunate brethren are able to fulfill the commandment of matzah on this night . . .
In the closing line of this letter he reminds the reader that time is extremely short; the rail journey to the war zone itself takes no less than six weeks, and money must be raised before production can even begin:
Speed is as vital as the very matter itself.
Railway map showing Harbin
Implementation, Setbacks & Success
Over the next few months, the committee certainly had their work cut out for them. The main problem was logistical; freight along the Trans-Siberian Railway to Harbin was reserved almost exclusively for military equipment and supplies. But baking the matzah in Harbin itself would cost more than three times the price that it would to bake it in the established bakeries in the west. The members of the committee successfully petitioned the minister of transportation and the minister for war, Viktor Sakharov, and it was agreed that ten freight cars would be provided for the shipment and transportation of Passover supplies. Another problem was the distribution of the matzah amongst the Jewish troops once it arrived in the war zone. To this purpose the committee sent a special emissary, Reb Leib Hurowitz, to Harbin to oversee the eastern end of the operation, and the production of more matzah to supplement that which was being shipped in from the west. In addition, huge quantities of salted kosher meat were also prepared for shipment.
Rabbi Shalom DovBer refused to officially chair the committee, suggesting instead that Baron David Günzburg (son of the aforementioned Horace Günzburg) be invited to fill that role. The chief work of the committee was executed by R. Shmuel Michel Trainin, who was appointed deputy chairman. Nevertheless, the extant correspondence testifies to the depth of the rebbe’s continued involvement in every detail of the operation. It was he who conceived and instigated the campaign, and it was he who planned and saw through its successful implementation.
Along the Trans-Siberian Railroad alone, seven stations were stocked with Passover supplies for the provision of Jewish troops passing to and from the war zone.
Four days before Passover (11 Nissan) Rabbi Shalom DovBer received a telegram from Harbin notifying him that the freight cars had arrived. On the following day he received a telegram from the committee in S. Petersburg confirming that all the arrangements had been brought to timely fruition. This could not have been an easy task; there were several tens of thousands of Jewish troops spread over several thousand square miles. In addition, all elements of production and distribution had to be coordinated with the Russian military and transportation authorities. Along the Trans-Siberian Railroad alone, seven stations were stocked with Passover supplies for the provision of Jewish troops passing to and from the war zone.
On receiving this news from the committee, Rabbi Shalom DovBer telegraphed the following reply:
Great is my joy that the will of G‑d has been done, and there will be matzah for our soldier brethren this Passover. I am very grateful to the members of the committee, and especially to the chairman and his deputy, for the toil of their souls and their good work for the desired intention. In G‑d’s name, I bless you with the joy of the coming festival. May you always see your brethren’s good. May our brothers in the war zone be mighty warriors and victors for the glory of our king and the land of our birth, and may they come home in peace.
On the same day he penned a letter to R. Shmuel Michel Trainin thanking him personally for all his efforts, and requesting that he be notified once a detailed report from Harbin regarding the distribution of the matzah amongst the troops had been received. He also suggested that notices be placed in the newspapers on behalf of the soldiers, thanking their brethren at home for providing them with Passover necessities.
Jewish Soldiers of the Russian Army, Passover 1905
According to an account by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the very next day a telegram from R. Leib Hurowitz notified Rabbi Shalom DovBer that not all the wagons had arrived as planned. Consequently there was a shortage of matzah, not at the front, but in Harbin itself. At the last minute 10,000 rubles were wired by the committee to Harbin, so that additional matzahs could be baked regardless of expense.
While conducting his own Seder, the rebbe received another telegram—forwarded from Harbin by way of S. Petersburg—bearing the news that the matzah had been correctly distributed amongst the troops in the war zone. Upon reading it, Rabbi Shalom DovBer rose from his chair in gratitude and declared, “Thank G‑d!”