Passover Heroes

Nothing in the Passover seder is as it appears. Each symbol, midrash, vignette, poem, and song evokes layers of meaning that help fashion the Jewish heart, mind and soul. The seder carries such deep religious, cultural, moral, historical, and political significance that Passover is the most observed holiday in Judaism today.

Last year at this time I wrote about my favorite Biblical character, Nachshon, the son of Aminadav. Nachshon is not mentioned in the Biblical exodus story per se (he is cited as the chief in the Tribe of Judah), yet he looms large in rabbinic literature as a critically important figure in the narrative at the Sea of Reeds.

Rabbi John Rosove of Los Angeles wrote, “As the Israelites fled Egypt they faced before them the impassable Sea and behind them in the pursuing Egyptian army. Terrified, they turned on Moses and cried, “Why did you bring us here to perish?”

“Rabbi Judah says: ‘When the Israelites stood at the sea one said: ‘I don’t want to go down to the sea first.’ Another said: ‘I don’t want to go down first either.’ While they were standing there, and while Moses was praying to God to save them, Nachshon jumped up, went down and fell into the waves.’" Talmud (Bavli, Sota36a), Mechilta (Parashat B’shalach)

Nachshon’s “leap” was a significant turning point. His willingness to take history into his own hands became a fundamental tenet of Jewish activism and a defining element in the character of the Jewish hero.

When I think of Nachshon, I think of our community’s modern day version – Priscilla Kostiner. Earlier this week, Priscilla retired from her professional role at the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland after 3 ½ years. This is something she had scheduled for quite some time.

Priscilla, as many of you know, has been an outstanding leader within our Jewish community and internationally since her family’s arrival in Portland some 40+ years ago. If one looks at her myriad of volunteer leadership roles, including serving as Chair of the Board of the Jewish Federation, and her professional roles with the United Jewish Appeal and our local federation, one can only be grateful and impressed. Priscilla has always been our community’s Nachshon – the first to take that “leap,” – to be involved, take a leadership role, and commit her time and resources to every need that comes our community’s way.

I first met Priscilla in Miami, Florida on January 30, 2000 for a Partnership 2000 (North American communities linked with communities in Israel – Portland was connected to Kiryat Malachi) meeting. Priscilla was the national chair. I always remember the meeting, because it was on Super Bowl Sunday (Rams vs. Titans) – who would do that except someone who is so committed to their leadership role?

It has been said that there are two ways to lead: by instruction and by example. Priscilla exemplifies both – she has been my coach, sounding board, historian, and inspiration in my efforts here at the Jewish Federation. Priscilla, THANK YOU (which does not say nearly enough)! Mazel tov on your “professional” retirement, but I know our community can continue to call upon you at any time. Yasher koach and may you and your beautiful family continue to go from strength to strength.

As the world reacts to the Iran framework, the tragedy in Kenya, and other world happenings, we cannot forget about our Jewish mishpocha (family) around the world -- especially as the Passover holiday begins. Ukraine has been mired in conflict for more than a year, and the resulting economic and political instability have profoundly affected the country’s more than 350,000 Jews. Thousands have been forced to flee their homes in eastern Ukraine—the first time Jews in Europe have been displaced since World War II. Others remain trapped in the battle-torn region. And throughout the country, security concerns have Jews and Jewish institutions on high alert.

To date, Jewish Federations across North America have raised and allocated more than $2.5 million through the Ukraine Assistance Fund to meet the immediate needs of Ukrainian Jews and facilitate aliyah for those who want to move to Israel. That aid has meant the difference between life and death for nearly 100,000 Jews throughout the country. Ukraine has seen: a 37.5% devaluation in the Ukrainian currency (grivna), 40% rise in the price of food, 100% increase in the price of medications, and 90% increase in the cost of utilities

The Jewish Federation’s partners are on the ground making a difference:

  • Delivering basic needs like food, medicine and emergency homecare service for tens of thousands of Jews of all ages.
  • With economic life at a standstill and unemployment rampant, young middle-class families need extra support just to get by.
  • Providing nearly 7,000 Jews who have left their homes or who remain trapped in conflict zones with basic necessities and trauma support.
  • Directing funds to dozens of synagogues, schools, community centers and agencies for increased security needs and infrastructure fortification upgrades. 
  • Aiding and counseling Jews considering aliyah to Israel with the entire relocation process, and provide safe transportation and housing for new immigrants in Israel.

Our Federation is committed to working with our partners at home and abroad throughout this crisis. We are continuing to collect donations through our Ukraine Assistance Fund -- please donate now.

To close, on Monday of this week, I participated in the annual Intergroup Seder (originally started by the OAJC) where over 100 people from all faith groups came together for an evening of learning and togetherness. It made me realize that despite all the “ugliness” in our world, we can come together with those who share common values. Moreover, it is on this holiday that we begin the seder by saying “Let all those who are hungry come and eat.” This does not have to mean just hungry for food -- it can also mean hungry for the richness of the Jewish community and our Jewish values.

Shabbat shalom and chag kasher v'same'ach" -- wishing you and your family a kosher and happy holiday. Next year in Jerusalem.



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