Two thousand gefilte fish are headed to Nepal this Passover, along with 1,000 kilos of matzah and 2,000 bottles of wine. They’re set to arrive by container from Israel as part of preparations for the 1,500-person Seder the country’s Chabad-Lubavitch center will be hosting for a crowd of mostly Israeli backpackers and travelers.
The Chabad House run by Rabbi Chezky and Chani Lifshitz may only have electricity eight hours a day, but it routinely runs the largest Seder in the world against all odds.
To be exact, it hosts four Seders: the 1,500-person event in Kathmandu, a 400-person Seder in Pokhara, another at a popular point where people begin treks through the mountains, and yet another in the middle of a popular hiking route that draws about 50 people. Rabbinical students arrive by helicopter to lead that one, “otherwise they’d have to walk six days,” says Chezky Lifshitz.
The whole thing is coordinated with the help of Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch.
Everybody pitches in to help make the holiday a success.
“You can come one week before the Seder and you can see hundreds of Jewish people singing and cutting vegetables,” reveals Chani Lifshitz. “We have a carrot team and a cucumber team; it’s really nice to see.”
The Seder starts an hour before the holiday; the rabbi gets on the microphone, travelers sing together and play instruments, and the Israeli Ambassador comes to speak. They pray together and then return to the big hall for the meal itself.
“It takes four, five hours,” says Chezky Lifshitz, which for many is a welcome slice of home. “Many of them, if they’re coming over for the Seder, it’s the first opportunity to meet Judaism in the Far East.”
The first Nepal Seder took place in 1988, with the others added last year.
“People know in advance about this Seder; it’s very famous all over the Jewish world,” states the rabbi. “So people, before they come, they make a connection with us about it.”
It’s $12 to participate – some people pay ahead of time, others pay at the door. There is a deadline, but some backpackers lose track of time.
“Some don’t know when exactly the Seder is, but they still come, some in the middle of the Seder,” he relates.
The menu comprises 500 chickens, seven or eight kinds of salads, local fish and gefilte fish, chicken soup, potatoes and more. Children who attend ask the traditional Four Questions from the Haggadah.
Being together for the holidays demonstrates the strong connections Jews feel, especially in faraway places, says Lifshitz. Chabad House personnel travel to monasteries and non-Jewish temples ahead of the Seders to invite any Jews who may be there. The rabbi hopes they’ll take the experience home and continue the tradition, especially carrying with them the sense of unity between all kinds of Jewish people.
“Eleven years we’re here and this is our mission; we try very hard to make the people proud of their Judaism, to make them feel that no Jew will be left behind,” he explains.
Rabbi Ofer and Yael Kripor’s kitchen at their Chabad House in Cuzco is small, but they’re expecting 1,200 Passover guests this year.
Similar stories can be found in Peru, where the Chabad House in Cuzco is expecting upwards of 1,200 guests for its Seder. Rabbi Ofer and Yael Kripor persuaded a soccer team to move its tournament to another location this year to make room for the Passover celebration, which will take place inside a heated tent.
Guests will drink grape juice the Kripors make themselves. As for food, the cooking will begin Saturday night before Passover. The couple has only one oven.
“There’s a rumor in Bolivia that there’s no room at the Seder in Cuzco,” remarks Yael Kripor. “We get emails every day – 10 people, six people – someone called the other day and said, ‘We want to come and heard there’s no room.’ I said, ‘How can that be? We haven’t even printed the tickets!’ ”
Kripor tells people when they register that they should make sure to stay until the end. They come an hour and a half ahead of time to take photos, dressed up and excited, she details, and stay until 10, 10:30.
“Everyone’s singing songs and standing on chairs,” she says. “It’s really very special.”
Travelers have written in afterwards to say what a special part of their journeys it has been to be a part of the Seder.
“It’s an extreme experience for them,” proffers Kripor. “They’re at the end of the world, it’s like nowhere, and being able to celebrate Passover and to be able to feel a bit of a connection to their being Jewish is a very big thing for them.”
There are even repeat guests, like the guy who appeared one Passover and came back to Cuzco two years ago for a baby’s circumcision.
“We don’t even have his phone number,” says Kripor. “He just shows up when something’s going on. He’s very sweet.”
Over in Thailand, the Chabad House in Chiang Mai is preparing for 700 guests, despite flooding that inundated the center with two meters high last week.
“Now the sun is coming out and everyone’s preparing for Passover,” reveals Rabbi Mendy Goldshmid.
For the rabbi and fellow co-director Sara Hinda Goldshmid, preparations mean renting a tent and a refrigerated truck, in addition to lots and lots of cooking. Meat will arrive from Bangkok, Thailand, while food prep will begin before the Sabbath next week. By Sunday and Monday – the day before Passover – cooking will shift into high gear.
The Chiang Mai menu will mix traditional foods like gefilite fish with exotic dishes such as Moroccan salad to make sure everyone feels at home. Festivities will begin a half hour before a candle-lighting ceremony ushers in the holiday, and will end by about 11:00. Weather is not an issue.
“I remember two years ago, it started raining in the middle,” says Goldshmid. “The people were standing on chairs, even on tables, because there was so much rain.”
In the end, it’s all about family, he states. Families, students, Israeli backpackers, it doesn’t matter: “Everyone is invited to come.”