Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical students known as “Roving Rabbis” are setting out across the globe this week to run Passover seders in isolated communities for Jewish families who would otherwise not have one. While not an easy task, it’s seen by a record number of students as a golden opportunity.
This year, an unprecedented 700 young men — nearly double last year’s number — applied to take part in the Roving Rabbis program, formally known as Merkos Shlichus.
“It’s a big responsibility,” said Mendel Cohen, who volunteered for the last two years. "For many of the people we meet, we have one night to make an impression that will pique their interest in Judaism."
Being a “Roving Rabbi” means choosing to leave one’s family for the holiday and doing everything with the help of perhaps one or two fellow students — from transporting matzah and wine to distant locations, to koshering a local kitchen, to hosting an interactive seder that might represent the only Jewish experience of the year for many in remote locales.
The Rabbis will be guiding seders on the first two nights of Passover, and in Israel on one night. Marking the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt over 3,300 years ago, the seders this year will be held on the nights of March 25 and 26. Jewish people far and wide will be sitting around the table with Roving Rabbis to tell the story of the Exodus, eat the matzah and bitter herbs, drink four cups of wine and recall the Passover sacrifices.
Questions assessed the knowledge, attitude and motivation of the applicants.
Extensive written exams were prepared for those who will visit rural Jewish communities. “The test was not only knowledge-based,” said Rabbi Schneur Nejar. “We included many questions to determine the attitude and motivation of the applicants.”
“For me, this exam was not just another test, but really highlighted the points we have to learn and prepare ourselves for before we go out,” said Chaim Goldberg. “Sometimes, you find yourself in certain situations where you need to make split-second decisions.”
Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, and staff combed through the papers to select students who possessed the understanding, aptitude and dedication required for the mission.
A seminar on the practical aspects of the seder, as well as a review of the laws of Passover, was also scheduled for those students approved to go.
Created and directed by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, “Roving Rabbis” is one of the oldest and longest-running Jewish outreach programs, founded back in 1943. The public seder was encouraged by the Rebbe for those who may not know the traditions and finer details or who may not make one on their own.
With double the applicants this year, it was standing room only.
This year’s group of volunteers is hoping to replicate the successes of their predecessors. “As we get closer to Passover we’re making our way around the Florida Panhandle in search of Jewish people who may need a place for the seder, a box of matzah or a listening ear,” wrote students who spent a Passover in Panama Beach City, Fla. “This area is filled with Israeli and Moroccan immigrants, many of whom are searching to ‘rekindle the spark’ and enjoy the Passover experience they had as children.”
“My kids are hungry for this,” one parent told Rabbi Hirshy Sputz, who wrote about the pre-Passover experience. The community was “gathering on their own, holding services in a storefront without a Rabbi,” wrote Sputz. “They were thrilled that we had arrived to revitalize them in time for the holiday of Passover.”
“For more than 70 years, Merkos Shlichus has led the way in bringing the warmth and joy of yiddishkeit to Jews who would otherwise not be able to experience it,” explained Kotlarsky. “Through this program, hundreds of emissaries moved out to full-time communities due to the groundwork that the visiting students pioneered."
“It is very impressive to see the desire and dedication of today’s students to the Rebbe’s causes.”