A local joke notes that every year, something happens just before the famous Passover Seder in Kathmandu.
There was the Nepalese coup one year that ended almost to the day that the largest Seder in the world got underway. And then there was the customs fiasco in 2008 that almost prevented Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Chezky and Chanie Lifshitz from having enough food for the thousands who feasted at the Seders that year.
As Israelis celebrate the 25th anniversary of tourism between their country and the Himalayan state, those who have taken part in Passover festivities there note that in the 22 years since the nation’s first Passover Seder, every celebration has been special.
Back in 1989, then- Ambassador Shmuel Moyal wanted to have a Passover Seder for Israeli backpackers at the Israeli Embassy in Kathmandu. He hung up a sign-in sheet at a popular restaurant, expecting that 30 or 40 Israelis would RSVP. But when close to 90 people signed up just three weeks before Passover, he turned to the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, for help.
“I sent a telegram to Rabbi Schneerson, who I knew from when I was a consul in New York,” said Moyal, who now lives in Tel Aviv.
“He said not to worry, that he’ll send three rabbinical students to help,” said Moyal. “And three came: one from Australia, one from New York and one from Canada.”
Along with the young men, the Rebbe sent a shipment of a quarter ton of special handmade matzah, wine and kosher meat. Everything arrived just in time for the holiday.
Rabbi Mendel Lipskier, a native of Australia who today teaches at the Yeshiva Centre in Melbourne, said that his parents were concerned about his traveling to Nepal.
“At that time, South Asia was hardly visited by anyone,” he explained. “But they were very supportive.”
On the way there, Lipskier and his two friends, who had been studying in at a yeshivah in Sydney, met people who thought the Seder was a great idea.
“They were so excited,” said the rabbi. “They couldn’t believe we were coming for them.”
Rabbi Mendy Kastel, one of the other students who travelled to Nepal that year, had heard of Nepal before.
“When I was a boy of 13 or 14 years old, my father came home from [synagogue] on a Friday night and told us at the dinner table about a note he saw from two backpackers in Nepal,” recalled Kastel, who today serves as a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in New South Wales “They asked the Rebbe if he could send emissaries to Nepal for Passover.
“A few years later when I was studying in Sydney, I remembered the story and I asked my father if I could go to Nepal,” he added. “He told me to put together a plan.”
Kastel contacted the Israeli Embassy in Kathmandu and the Nepalese Consulate in Australia, and presented his plan to Rabbi Chaim Hodakov, then chief of staff of the Rebbe’s secretariat in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The young men were optimistic, hoping to get more than the 90 people who had already signed up for the Seder.
Soon, hundreds of names were filling up a notepad attached to posters throughout the city.
“Word spread like wildfire,” said Kastel.
Although the provisions were meant to feed 100 people, 500 backpackers showed up for the city’s first-ever Seder.
“There wasn’t any time to get more food shipped,” said Kastel, “so we had to work with the food we had.
“I’m a Brooklyn boy and I never understood what it meant to be in a Third World country,” he continued.
On top of navigating a local economy to get more supplies, a gas embargo from India forced the rabbinical students to build log ovens to cook the food.
In the end, the embassy building wouldn’t hold everyone.
“The Nepalese Army covered the area with a huge tent,” recalled Moyal, “and the American Embassy lent us tables.”
A crowd builds at the site of a ‘90s-era Passover Seder in Kathmandu.
Year After Year
The following year, Rabbi Asi Spiegel and two other rabbinical students came to once again lead a Seder for any Jews that found themselves in the region. On the flight over, the young men realized that none of them knew how to cook, let alone for hundreds of people. But the Seder lived on.
For Spiegel, the fact that so many people gathered in Kathmandu so many years ago—and continue to do so today—boggles the mind. And the Seders don’t take place just in the Nepalese capital any more. Now, teams of rabbinical students coached by Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, travel to the country to assist the Lifshitzes at several locations.
“Back [in the ‘90s], Israelis would be traveling for a few months and would be out of touch,” said Spiegel, who helped lead eight of the Seders throughout the 1990s. “They didn’t follow the news; they didn’t really call home.”
When a young Shachar Shoshani saw the bearded students, the Israeli was shocked.
“I thought it was strange to see Orthodox Jews there,” said Shoshani.
He and his friend Avraham chatted with the three young men and decided to help.
They went shopping in the market and helped prepare the food, all while a coup took place in the background. Avraham, who happened to serve as a chef in the Israel Defense Force, “ran the kitchen.”
Soon after the Seder, Shoshani was traveling in India when a bomb exploded at the Loomis Restaurant at the Vivek Hotel in New Delhi, killing thirteen foreign tourists and injuring two Indian waiters. Now a father of nine, Shoshani called the fact that he and his friends escaped a revealed miracle.
Shoshani, who now works in the Colel Chabad soup kitchen in Safed, called the Kathmandu Seder the trigger that led him down the road toward reconnecting with Judaism.
Spiegel and the other rabbinical students “were so friendly,” said Shoshani. “We really felt we could talk with them.”
Yossi and Ilana Jablonski, who traveled around the Far East for a few years in the 1990s making and selling jewelry, attended a Seder in Nepal, as well in Thailand, Japan and India. The couple started reading and learning about Judaism and became very close to Rabbi Yosef Chaim and Nechama Dina Kantor, who were sent to Bangkok as Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in 1993. But it was at the Seder in Nepal when Yossi Jablonski first read out loud from the Haggadah.
“The experience will stay with me for the rest of my life,” said Jablonski, who now lives with his wife and four children in Melbourne, where he designs and makes fine jewelry.
Rabbi Asi Spiegel helps a Jewish traveler in Nepal don the prayer boxes known as tefillin.
Rabbi Chaim Baruch Alevsky, who was a 19-year-old rabbinical student when he helped run a Nepal Seder one year, told the story of another person whose spiritual awakening occurred in Kathmandu.
Just before Passover, the man and his companion left the city.
“They wanted matzah because they were going on a long bus ride and wouldn’t be back in time for Passover,” recalled Alevsky, co-director of family and youth programming with his wife, Sarah, at Chabad of the West Side in New York City. “Hours later, we realized the matzah we gave them was not kosher for Passover. It was matzah we had brought to eat before the holiday. We started freaking out!”
They tracked down the bus.
“We got a rickshaw and zoomed over,” said Alevsky. “We found them, and they were so happy when we gave them the new matzah.”
A few years later, Spiegel met the man again. He had taken on a Torah-observant lifestyle, and told Spiegel that the rushed delivery of matzah through the streets of Nepal inspired him to change his life.
During Moyal’s 40-year career in Israel’s Foreign Service, he also served as ambassador to Australia, the Islands of the South Pacific, Azerbaijan and Oman. But that first Seder in Nepal left quite an impression.
“It was such a long time ago,” said Moyal, now 75. “An experience like this is something amazing.”