Ukraine’s Zelensky attends mock Passover seder at Kyiv Jewish school

Ukrainian leader tells students that Jewish holiday is ‘first of all about freedom,’ says Ukrainians and Israelis must ‘defeat evil’ while predicting ‘miracles’ in both countries

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sits with students from the Simcha School in Kyiv for a model Passover seder, April 18, 2024. (Courtesy FJCU via JTA)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sits with students from the Simcha School in Kyiv for a model Passover seder, April 18, 2024. (Courtesy FJCU via JTA)

KYIV, Ukraine (JTA) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has met with Jewish leaders several times in the two years since war came to his country, but he had never met with Jewish teenagers until Thursday, when he joined students at a Kyiv Jewish school for their mock Passover seder.

“Do you remember what the Passover holiday is all about?” one student from the Simcha School asked Zelensky, who is Jewish.

“I think first of all it is about freedom,” he answered as another student poured a cup of Kedem grape juice, a loaded seder plate in view. “And freedom is probably the most sensitive and important thing we have. It is cherished by every nation, every nation that has values, and I think we need to stand up for this freedom. … It’s important that you do this today, that you talk about it, and that you are being taught this.”

After meeting with the students, Zelensky spoke with rabbis affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which operates the school and much of Jewish life in Ukraine, inside a bunker built at the school following Russia’s February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine. There, he drew connections between the plight of the ancient Israelites of the Passover story and contemporary Ukrainians, as well as between Ukrainians and Israelis both facing current wars their countries did not start.

“Many in Ukraine and Israel will celebrate Passover, the holiday of freedom, in shelters,” Zelensky said, according to a statement shared by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, a Chabad group.

Alluding to the story of Passover, Zelensky said that both Ukrainians and Israelis must remain “free people” and “defeat evil.”

He added, “The Russians want to destroy us like the people of Israel in Egypt. We trust that we will see our own miracles both in Ukraine and in Israel.”

The chair of the FJCU, Rabbi Meyer Stambler, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that Zelensky’s visit to the Simcha school was “historic,” as it was the first to a Jewish institution paid by the Ukrainian president during the war. Zelensky has repeatedly met with Jewish leaders since February 2022, but on all previous occasions he received them at the presidential premises.

During his visit, students told Zelensky about the rituals and significance of Passover and shared their personal war stories. One of the students, Vitaly Takhmazov, saw both his parents join the Ukrainian army after the war’s start; his mother was seriously injured and did not return to the army after undergoing surgery. His father continues fighting the Russians.

During the visit, Stambler gave Zelensky a copy of the first Passover Haggadah translated into Ukrainian. The translation symbolizes the efforts of many Ukrainian Jews to switch from Russian, which was until recently the lingua franca of an overwhelming majority of Ukrainian Jews, to the state language, as an act of national affirmation and defiance against Russia.

The Ukrainian president praised the Chabad rabbis and emissaries who refused to leave Ukraine after the start of the war and expressed pride about the fact that the last Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was born in the city of Mykolayiv, in Southern Ukraine. (Friday is the 122nd anniversary of Schneerson’s birth, according to the Jewish calendar.)

Zelensky also received matzah made at the Tiferet Hamatzot bakery in Dnipro, a major Ukrainian city situated nearly 500 kilometers southeast of Kyiv that is relatively close to the frontline and also is a Chabad stronghold and home to the FJCU’s headquarters.

The Haggadah and matzah will be in the 45,000 aid boxes that the FJCU plans to distribute to Ukrainian Jews in advance of Passover. Chabad rabbis also plan to hold public seders in Ukraine’s 41 biggest cities that together are expected to draw 20,000 Jews.

Zelensky suggested that he liked the homegrown matzah, with a quip that belied the seriousness of the Ukrainian war situation at a time when US lawmakers are fighting over whether to send more aid in a package that would also benefit Israel.

“Don’t market it in America until they help us with new Patriot [missile defense system] batteries,” Zelensky said, according to a person who attended the event.

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