The mass migration of Soviet Jews to Israel has infused Passover 1990 with a contemporary significance that has dominated celebration of the eight-day holiday, during which Jews commemorate their physical and spiritual redemption.
Jewish leaders have likened the resettlement of Soviet Jewry to the Old Testament exodus of Jews from Egypt that constitutes the biblical basis for Passover, which began Monday and Tuesday evenings with two ritual seder meals.
"Today's headlines read like a contemporary reenactment of the exodus story," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in West Los Angeles. "It's the most meaningful thing going on in the Jewish world today."
However, exhilaration has been tempered by fears that the monumental changes sweeping the Soviet Union have also unleashed a wave of anti-Semitism that threatens the physical well-being of the more than 2 million Jews still living there. Moreover, Jewish leaders are fearful that Moscow may yield to Arab demands and bring a sudden halt to Jewish emigration to Israel.
"Just as the parting of the Red Sea presented a window of opportunity for the Jews in Egypt to escape, the same can be said for the current situation in the Soviet Union," said Rabbi Jonathon Miller of Bel Air's Stephen S. Wise Temple. "A quick response is imperative.
"I don't think there was one aware Jew who sat down at a seder table who did not read new meaning into the Passover story this year because of the events in the Soviet Union."
The degree of urgency felt by the Jewish leaders has been strong enough to put aside the deep antagonisms that have divided the Los Angeles Jewish community, at least temporarily, in favor of cooperation on the issue.
For example, the heads of both Chabad and the Wiesenthal Center, two influential organizations that normally operate independently of other local Jewish groups, have been major participants at recent strategy meetings organized by the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles to plan local fund-raising efforts on behalf of Soviet Jews.
"Everybody understands what is at stake here," federation President George Caplan said. "It's an opportunity to do well what we did not do well in the 1930s (when Jews could still flee the Nazis) and that is to save Jews."
As many as 100,000 Soviet Jews are expected to arrive in Israel this year, a migration that Jewish leaders hope will both strengthen Israel and extricate members of the world's third-largest Jewish community from apparently growing anti-Semitism that they believe is likely to worsen.
More than 15,000 Soviet Jews arrived in Israel during the first three months of 1990. Since then, however, the pace has quickened considerably. About 7,300 arrived in March and about 6,000 arrived in the first few days of April alone, according to Israeli government officials. A total of 1 million Soviet Jews have applied to emigrate and the overwhelming majority of them are expected to settle in Israel.
Jews outside Israel have pledged to raise $6 million to help resettle Soviet Jews, with the American Jewish community, the world's largest, committed to raising $240 million. Los Angeles Jews have been asked to contribute $36 million over the next three years.
Operation Exodus, as the fund-raising campaign has been named, was officially kicked off last week in advance of the actual start of Passover with a model seder that linked officials in Washington, Jerusalem and Moscow via satellite. Vice President Dan Quayle attended the Washington seder.
In Los Angeles, where an estimated 60,000 Soviet Jews have settled in recent years, a number of synagogues and other Jewish institutions went out of their way this year to include Soviet Jews, particularly the newest arrivals, in their seders.
"I had at least 10 invitations," said Gregory Makaron, president of the Assn. of Soviet Jewish Emigres in Los Angeles. "It's funny to be invited everywhere all of a sudden. But it's also a very good thing. We are very appreciative of such a welcome."
One of the largest seders was held at Stephen S. Wise, a Reform congregation boasting nearly 10,000 members. About 300 Soviet Jews participated in a ritual meal Wednesday night that was conducted largely in Russian.
At Sinai Temple, a Conservative congregation in Westwood, another 75 Soviet Jews attended a seder Tuesday night. "When the Jews fled Egypt they achieved their physical freedom," Sinai's Rabbi Allan Schranz said. "But it wasn't until later, at Mt. Sinai, that they received their faith dimension when they received the Torah.
"Parallels exist for Soviet Jews. By emigrating, they have been physically saved. Providing the religious experience of the seder begins to instill in them Judaism's faith component. That's something new to most Russian Jews who were deprived of any cultural or religious impulses for decades by the Soviet leadership."