By Shuly Rubin Schwartz
Exactly 100 years ago, in April 1922, my great-grandparents emigrated to the United States with their four children, fearing for their lives in Kremenets, a Russian city in present-day western Ukraine.
My great-grandfather, Aaron Shimon Shpall, an educator and journalist, recorded his thoughts about leaving “the city that we were born in and that we spent years of our lives in,” acknowledging how hard it would be “to separate from our native land, and our birthplace and our father’s house.”
But he was clear that the Russia he knew had “embittered our lives and saddened our souls. If not for the 3 million of our brothers who live there, it could be overturned along with Sodom and Gomorrah and the world would have lost nothing.”
Finally, after months of grueling uncertainty, including one arrest and another pending, my great-grandfather was reunited with his family in Colorado before he and his family ultimately settled in New Orleans, where he served as teacher and then as assistant principal of the communal Hebrew school.
The anguish of my family’s departure and, I can only imagine, the feelings of refugees all over the world in every era, is captured in my great-grandfather’s diary: “Nobody desired to go, but everybody had to go. We all run, or, to speak more correctly, we flee. And when somebody flees, there is no question: ‘Where to?’ Where your feet carry you! Where you have the possibility!”
The Passover seder — the Jewish ritual observed more than any other — serves as a symbolic reenactment of the journey of the Israelites from slavery to freedom. The Haggadah commands us to experience this journey annually as a way of developing historical empathy for all who are oppressed, enslaved and displaced, and who hope for liberation. As Jews, we have ritualized the recounting of our people’s enslavement and deliverance in part to cultivate a sense of moral responsibility toward those suffering in our own day.
This year, our focus included Ukrainians fighting valiantly to defend themselves against Russian invasion. Outraged by the violence, heartbroken by the loss of life and appalled by the destruction, we feel an obligation to help the Ukrainian people by offering monetary support and help with resettlement.
We are especially attuned to helping the tens of thousands of Jews among them. The bonds of history that tie our struggles to those of Ukrainian Jews and their proud Jewish president today are deep and, in many cases, including mine, quite personal.
American Jewry has flourished thanks to ancestors like mine who realized their determination to seek freedom and escape oppression. Thanks to their courage and resolve, we are privileged to recount the Exodus from Egypt each year as citizens of a democratic state and to develop the empathy needed at moments like this to help others who fear for their lives.
For some, historical empathy for the plight of the Ukrainian people might be complicated by ancestors who suffered from brutal antisemitism at the hands of Ukrainian neighbors or whose ancestors’ murder at the hand of the Nazis was abetted by local Ukrainians.
How can we square these complicated emotions? In part, because we also know that countless other Ukrainians fought in the Russian army to defeat the Nazis, and that Ukraine has changed greatly over time. The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, on the site of the largest massacre of Ukrainian Jews by the Nazis, is in the process of opening and today, Ukraine is led by a Jewish president.
Most important, we quell our doubts because the Haggadah reminds us not to take our freedom for granted, pointing us instead to activate our sense of moral responsibility to help others who are fighting to secure their own.
Our Haggadah prods us to recall our history so that it will conjure up our best selves, so that we will do what we can to ensure that the future brings freedom, safety and security to all.
It’s a sentiment I believe my great-grandfather would have shared.
Shuly Rubin Schwartz is chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.