Ukrainian Jews Celebrate Passover In Uncertain Times

The holiday has a powerful message this year for Jews in Ukraine, who have found liberation from what they saw as a corrupt government. But with violence in the East, their story is still unfolding.

At Passover celebrations around the world tonight, the youngest child will sing a song in Hebrew. "Why," they'll ask, "is this night different from all other nights?"

Adults in Ukraine can ask a similar question this year: What makes this Passover different from all others? It's a question Rabbi Alexander Duchovny has been thinking about a lot. "Passover is z'man cheruteinu, time of our liberty — time of freedom," he says. "And especially for Ukrainian Jewry, and for Ukrainians, this is a time of liberty."

Duchovny is a progressive rabbi, and like many Jews in Kiev, he joined thousands of protesters in Independence Square this winter, demanding a change in government.

In the Passover story, Moses demands that Pharaoh "Let my people go." Duchovny sees a thread connecting ancient Egypt to modern-day Ukraine.

"We started our liberation 3,000 years ago, and we still are in the process," he says.

The last century of this struggle has been especially difficult for Ukrainian Jews. There have been massacres, pogroms and, of course, the Holocaust.

"My mother was a teenager when she was taken to be killed," Duchovny says. "On the way to be killed, she ran away together with her younger sister, and a Ukrainian family saved my mother."

Ukrainian Nazi collaborators killed his grandparents, his aunts and his uncles. But he chooses to focus on the other side of the coin — the Ukrainians who kept his mother alive.

Decades after the Holocaust, during the Soviet era, people whose passport said "Jewish" were not allowed to attend the University of Kiev. Leonid Fineberg had that experience. Now, he runs the Jewish studies department at the same university that once refused to admit him.

"The rate of anti-Semitism in Soviet times was extremely high," Fineberg says. "But it wasn't just Jewish people. Ukrainian dissidents couldn't find jobs either. Everybody had these problems."

Across town from the university, there's a Hasidic synagogue where Orthodox Jews have been worshipping, sometimes in secret, for more than 100 years. Groundskeeper Israel Radutsky remembers as a child how cautious people had to be when they celebrated the holiday.

"People could come here at Passover and get some matzo," he says, "but they had to hide it inside of a pillowcase so nobody knew they were carrying it."

Now the people of Ukraine have overthrown the government they saw as oppressive and corrupt. But the story is still unfolding. Protesters and government forces are shooting at each other in the East. Russia has annexed Crimea.

Duchovny says this underscores a central lesson of the Jewish experience. "Liberation never ends," he says. "Liberation starts, and it goes and goes and goes. And this is what Jewish people learned during the centuries."

I asked each person I interviewed where in the Passover story Ukraine's Jews are right now: Still enslaved in Egypt, living under the Pharaoh? Wandering in the desert for 40 years?"

Everybody gave a different answer — but not one said they had reached the promised land.

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