Jewish military personnel stationed at bases around the world will be able to celebrate the holiday of Passover next week thanks to a massive logistical effort that began months ago.

Coordinated by the Aleph Institute, a Chabad-Lubavitch organization based in South Florida that caters to the needs of Jewish soldiers and prisoners, the campaign sent care packages and Passover Seder plates and supplies to everyone from submariners to front-line troops in Afghanistan. All told, 600 cases of grape juice, 900 pounds of hand-baked matzah, 11,000 pounds of machine-baked matzah, thousands of Haggadahs, and countless tins of macaroons and other kosher-for-Passover fare are now in the hands of America’s men and women in uniform.

“We even added white horseradish in little mustard packets,” explained Rabbi Menachem Katz, director of outreach programs at the Aleph Institute. “We opened up a Passover food business, practically a food company for Passover.”

Making it happen isn’t easy, and takes a lot of coordination. Staff sent guidance to prison officials outlining exactly what inmates will need to do for the Passover Seders Monday and Tuesday night next week.

“A lot of work goes into this,” said Katz. “We start planning in December for this holiday.”

According to the rabbi, shipping overseas often requires going outside of the traditional networks maintained by the U.S. Postal Service and FedEx. And the list of recipients – collected from the soldiers themselves and their concerned parents and loved ones – keeps growing.

“We have Jewish people in Liberia that are getting Seder plates from us,” he detailed. “We get e-mails all the time from sailors saying they’re the only ones on a ship. If we don’t send them these packages, they don’t have a Seder.”

Each year, Aleph spends between $200,000 and $250,000 on the Passover distributions.

Jewish troops take delivery of matzah sent by the Aleph Institute.
Jewish troops take delivery of matzah sent by the Aleph Institute.

Sometimes, especially for Jewish prisoners, the packages are not enough.

Rabbi Moshe Vogel, the Pittsburgh-based executive director of Aleph Northeast, said the federal government’s budget crisis could affect the prison staffing necessary for Seders to take place.

“It’s a serious issue, and we’re going to have to deal with it,” said Vogel.

His branch of Aleph, which serves Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, sent out thousands of shelf-stable meals by UPS to get inmates through the holiday. They began before Chanukah to get the grape juice, gefilte fish, matzah, macaroons and more out to the prison population; in Pennsylvania alone there are 40 state prisons, 60 county jails and 15 federal prisons with a combined Jewish population of 500, according to the state Department of Corrections. (Statistics suggest a national Jewish prison population of more than 40,000.)

Recipients of the packages maintain that the ability to participate in a Seder strengthens their self-worth and Jewish identity.

Richard Goldstein, an ex-inmate who now works as Aleph’s volunteer coordinator, said being able to participate in Seders while in prison was an important reminder that he was still part of the Jewish community.

“It’s hard to put into words how it makes you feel when you can do that; it certainly means a lot more to you when you’re in prison, because you can relate more to the story,” he explained. “There you are a prisoner; as much as you’d like to get out, you can’t. You have empathy for the slaves in Egypt.

“You did something wrong and you’re being punished for it,” he added. “But you’re still a Jew.”