My friend Boris and I recently had the privilege of coordinating the Passover Seders in Shostka, Ukraine, a small town home to only several hundred Jews.

After three flights and ten hours of driving, we arrived two days before Passover. As enticing as a bed seemed at the moment, with the Seder just a day away, we needed to hit the ground running. Fortunately, were both raised by Russian-speaking parents, and were able to communicate effectively with the locals. We dedicated five hours to making the apartment's kitchen kosher for Passover, and then several women from the community arrived to help with the food preparations. We stayed awake well past midnight to ensure that the food for Shostka's Seder would be fresh, plentiful, and kosher for Passover.

We had approximately 40 reservations for the Seder, and with the food situation under control, we spent the next day preparing Passover-related material to share with our guests. Shostka's Jews have little to no knowledge of Judaism, and the intermarriage rate is nearly 95%. The Seder night is really the only time they receive an authentic Jewish experience, and we only had a couple of hours to inspire them. What could we say? What would resonate in their hearts? What would give them the inspiration to carry on until next year?

To add to our stress, accordingly to Jewish law the Seder may begin no earlier than nightfall, which was at 8:30 pm in Shostka. Ukrainian tradition is to eat dinner no later than 6:30, so the Jewish center’s director, Sveta, had called the Seder for 6:00, leaving us with quite the dilemma.

We convinced Sveta to call back all 40 participants and invite them for 7:00 pm, and when we arrived at the Jewish center we saw three beautifully arranged tables with 40 people seated. After putting on tefilin with the men and lighting candles with the women, it was 7:30 pm, and we still had to wait another hour until the Seder could begin. I took the stage, and in my broken Russian began to recount the Passover story from the very beginning, starting with Abraham, the first Jew. I then explained the symbolism of each item on the Seder plate, all the while hoping and praying that my broken Russian would somehow touch their souls. But growing hungrier by the minute, the Jews of Shostka had exhausted every ounce of their patience. Sensing this, I quickly wrapped up my speech with a beautiful story of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, which contained the message that every Jew is a precious gem.

The room was blanketed with a thick silence. I was painfully aware of each set of weary eyes upon me. I checked my watch: 8:00 pm. My mind was racing. What would the Rebbe expect me to do in this situation?

Then it hit me! “Simcha poretz geder - joy breaks through barriers." I suddenly remembered the classic song “Who Knows One?” in Russian. I recalled watching a video of a chassid singing that song to the Rebbe, and the Rebbe responding with tremendous joy.

I started the song slowly. "Ech ti zimlak, ya tibya raskazevayu, ADIN UNAS BOG!" (Why are you a fool? I'll teach you, G-D IS ONE!)

Boris and I continued onto the next stanza, then the third, and so on. Each new stanza infused the room with more and more energy.

As if at the flip of a switch, Shostka's Jewry was alive! Men, women, children, everyone was joining in. "One is G‑d, two are the tablets, three are the fathers, four are the mothers..." By the time we reached the 14th and final stanza, the place was on fire.

We then broke out into dance, celebrating exactly what Pesach is all about. We had just shattered the ultimate barrier. Now I could truly appreciate the adage of the Holy Ba’al Shem Tov: Joy bursts through all barriers.

The electricity in the room was not a result of something that was said, done, or felt. It was coming from the pure joy, expressing the essence of the soul. And between souls, there's clear communication. No language, culture, or any other difference could stand in the way.

After catching my breath, I glanced at my watch: 8:30. The Jews of Shostka were ready to begin their Seder.

Searching for Chametz in Shostka, Ukraine.
Searching for Chametz in Shostka, Ukraine.