Nikolayev, Ukraine 1902: It was less than a week before Passover, and the town was abuzz with Passover preparations. You know how it is, cleaning and scrubbing the home, switching over to the Passover dishes, and of course, cooking up a storm for the Seder Dinner.
In the humble home of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and Chana Schneerson, things were hectic, but with an added element. The couple was eagerly anticipating the arrival of their first child.
Just before Passover, on the 11th of Nissan, a baby boy was born. The Fifth Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch (R.Sholom Dovber) sent the couple numerous telegrams with detailed unique instructions on how they should raise this holy and luminous soul. His bris, eight days later, was a double celebration, as it was also his father’s birthday. They named him Menachem Mendel, and thus, 120 years ago in Ukraine, a light began to shine that would bring a renaissance to the Jewish spirit, and come to transform the world. Young Mendel would later become the Rebbe.
From a young age, little Mendel was exceptional amongst his peers. He recited the “Mah Nishtanah” (the “Four Questions”) fluently at the Seder — just after his second birthday.
Saved at Sea
Ukraine is famous for its cold winters, but at the southern tip it has beautiful scenic areas and resorts. At the age of 10, little Mendel accompanied his mother to a resort in Balaclava, (Crimea,) on the sea. Near the area, a narrow stream of water flowed between the two walls of a cave and rolled into the sea. Even experienced swimmers were cautious in this dangerous area.
One afternoon, young Mendel saw that a small child had rowed out to the dangerous spot near the cave and his boat was filling up with water. The child was drowning! Without hesitation, young Mendel swam out to the boat, climbed aboard and steered it to safety, saving the child’s life.
Young Menachem Mendel’s act of self-sacrifice and strong conviction was modeled after his father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. His father was the chief Rabbi of Yekaterinoslav (today’s Dnipro,) a large and bustling metropolis. Ukraine’s fertile land was the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, and every Passover, Ukraine it would be the source of distribution of Matzah for the entire country.
When the Soviet government nationalized the Matzah Bakeries and mills, they knew well that the Jews would not buy Matzah without the supervision of a recognized rabbi, and thus asked R. Levi Yitzchak to certify the wheat for Passover.
“I’ll give the certification,” the Rabbi told them, “but you must conform with the full halachic requirements, ensuring that the wheat does not come in contact with water, provide for the hiring of supervisors to ensure that it’s done properly, and to grant them complete freedom of action.”
“These demands are completely unacceptable,” the officials responded in anger. “When water is mixed into the wheat while grinding, the volume of the wheat increases substantially. Grinding dry wheat will cause a loss of thousands of rubles. You can’t think that we’ll agree to religious demands that will cost the government thousands of rubles.”
He replied firmly, “According to the soviet constitution and my own conscience, I won’t be able to tell anyone that the flour you grind is kosher for Passover when it’s not, and you cannot force me to act against my conscience.”
He traveled to Moscow, where he met with senior officials and Mikhail Kalinin, the Premiere of the Soviet Union, and explained his position. Unbelievably, they agreed with all of his conditions, in spite of the high cost it would entail.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak held firmly to the principles of Torah and Judaism, and the anti-religious government itself guaranteed that the Jews of Ukraine were able to celebrate a Kosher Passover.
After the fall of communism, the Ukrainian Jewish Community has been revitalized over the last 30 years. Once again Ukraine boasts a major Chabad Matzah bakery, distributing Matzah the world over. In fact, a large bulk of our Matzah comes from Ukraine. Chabad Centers across the globe are delighted to have matzah baked proudly by the Ukraine Matzah Bakery.
Over the last 30 years, 200 Chabad emissary families have answered the Rebbe’s Call for Jewish Outreach in over 35 cities throughout Ukraine, serving nearly 350,000 Jews. Often, the rabbis and their wives create the only Jewish infrastructure in the city. These emissaries do not only work with the Jewish communities in their cities but reach out to dozens of smaller towns and villages around them, arranging and running orphanages, soup kitchens and of course Jewish programming.
Since the war these emissary families have shown heroic dedication to their communities, saving the lives of Jews and gentiles alike. Shuls turned into shelters and helped people to safety. Our hearts, prayers and mitzvos are with our brothers and sisters, the Jews of Ukraine.
Let’s show our love and support for them by contributing securely online at: Chabad.org/Ukraine
This year just before Passover, we will be commemorating 120 years since the Rebbe’s birth in Ukraine. It has a special significance in Jewish tradition, 120 years marks a full and complete life; as the Torah tells us that Moshe, who led us from exile in Egypt, lived 120 years. In honor of this special day, celebrating the life and work of one who, from childhood, lived to give to others, let’s each take upon ourselves one mitzvah, one act of connection, to God and to our fellow. Let us find the spark of Moses within our souls. For truly, the Rebbe’s greatest power was to turn his students and admirers into leaders.
Rabbi Mordechai Rubin
Director of Colonie Chabad