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Pico Shul Hosting Passover Seders for Refugees in Poland

The Booksteins are running an online campaign to raise money for gifts for participants and purchase flowers and decorations to make the holiday even more memorable.
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April 6, 2022
Yonah and Rachel Bookstein (left) in Poland in the 1990s. Courtesy of the Booksteins.

In the late ‘90s, Rabbi Yonah Bookstein and his wife Rachel worked in the Jewish community in Poland. Together, they were the country directors for the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and managed a Jewish community center, ran adult education and youth programs and hosted events. Now, the couple, who founded Pico Shul in Pico-Robertson, are heading back to the region to host seders for native Polish Jews as well as Ukrainian refugees.

“We’ve maintained close connections with the community of people who worked there over the years and go back to visit regularly. When we heard about all of the need and the refugees streaming into Poland, we felt a real strong pull to do what we could to help.” – Rabbi Yonah Bookstein

“We’ve maintained close connections with the community of people who worked there over the years and go back to visit regularly,” said Yonah. “When we heard about all of the need and the refugees streaming into Poland, we felt a real strong pull to do what we could to help.”

According to the rabbi, thousands of Ukrainian Jews have fled to Poland. Now, over 100 are staying at the Hotel Ilan in Lublin, a smaller town with only 342,000 people and no significant Jewish infrastructure like in Kraków and Warsaw. Before World War II, the hotel was the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva.

“One funny thing is that there is this hotel in Lublin, so it’s a Passover hotel program, but it’s a very different kind of program,” said Yonah.

The Booksteins decided to go to Poland after talking with the chief rabbi there, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, and finding out about the community that needed help with seders. While they estimate that around 100 will join them, there could be more refugees arriving by Passover.

“We have great memories of doing public sedarim in Poland, and helping out seemed like a really good opportunity,” said Yonah. “We can do it because of our skillset and the fact that we speak Polish and know about the community already.” 

When Yonah and Rachel land in Lublin, which is closer to the Ukrainian border than Warsaw, they’re going to kasher the kitchen, gather raw ingredients like fish, fruits, vegetables and meat and supervise the workers to ensure that the food is prepared properly. They’re also bringing along three of their four children, who were interested in assisting their parents. 

“We felt a call to help, like many people watching the situation from the United States,” said Rachel. “We gave our kids a choice and they were very excited to be of service and part of that community building work we’ve always been doing.” 

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has been importing supplies to Poland for Passover for years, said Yonah. They send matzo from Israel as well as kosher for Pesach wine and grape juice in very large quantities. 

The Booksteins are running an online campaign to raise money for gifts for participants and purchase flowers and decorations to make the holiday even more memorable. Some people are contributing because they have a personal family connection to Lublin or the Ukraine, and others are donating because it’s a direct way to help out the refugees in need.

“We really want to make this not just a refugee seder, but also a celebration of community and freedom,” said Yonah. “We want to make it very special.” 

The seder will also feature haggadot in Polish, Russian and Hebrew – Yonah knows some Russian, but will likely use a translator just to make things easier. In addition to the practical help, the couple is also offering emotional assistance during this turbulent time. 

“We hope we are able to provide not just a Passover celebration, but also comfort, psychological support and care, which is what the chief rabbi has said is really needed,” said Rachel. “Hopefully, if these people feel connected with Jewish people around the world, and know that people like us in LA are thinking about them and caring about them in a very specific and personal way, it will alleviate some of their trauma. We’re hoping to give a personal face to the support they really need.” 

To contribute to the campaign for the seders in Lublin, visit picoshul.networkforgood.com/projects/156968-seder-for-refugees.

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