Pesach in Iran
Rabbi J.J. Hecht, of blessed memory, was legendary for his unremitting, selfless activity on behalf of Jews both near his Brooklyn headquarters and across the globe.
He related a story which occurred in 1987 when his son, Rabbi Sholom Ber Hecht of Forest Hills, New York was contacted by a congregant with a startling request.
This man had received a message from his nephew, who, together with three hundred other Jews had just escaped from Iran and was staying clandestinely in Karachi, Pakistan, a country known for its intolerance towards Jews. The man asked his uncle to please send them food for Passover, at least matzot for the Seder nights.
Rabbi J.J. Hecht had been deeply involved with the rescue of thousands of Iranian Jewish youth who fled after the Shah was deposed. But this was an entirely different matter, requiring the possibility of life-threatening personal risk to the one who would bring in the provisions.
Rabbi Hecht lost no time in communicating this request to the Rebbe, asking his advice and blessing.
The Rebbe replied that Rabbi Hecht should locate a person familiar with the customs of the Iranian community who would be willing to make the dangerous trip.
The Rebbe added that he, himself, would pay all the expenses associated with the trip, including the airfare for the emissary and the cost of the matzot.
The Rebbe's support gave the courage necessary to pursue the goal steadfastly.
Rabbi Hecht found an Iranian yeshiva student and arrangements began to solidify.
But at the last minute it was decided that it would be too dangerous for him to go, and so, an American student named Zalman Gerber agreed to undertake the mission.
With the help of Senator Alphonse D'Amato of New York, the Pakistani Consular officials were contacted.
They, however, refused to issue a visa, stating that it could be done only for those with business to conduct in Pakistan. That proved easy to circumvent, as friends within the Iranian Jewish community helped establish contacts with rug dealers who provided necessary documentation.
The visa was issued, but the student's safety was explicitly not guaranteed.
Once on the plane, Zalman nervously tried to think of how he would get together the necessary foods for the seder.
Since there were, of course, no kosher meals on the flight, he asked the stewardess for some fresh fruit. When she brought him an apple, he eyed in hungrily, but then stashed it away, thinking, "This will be for the charoset!"
Zalman arrived in Karachi with 20 pounds of hand-made shmura matzo and enough grape juice for the group (wine is prohibited in Pakistan, since it is a Moslem country). The first hurdle was getting past customs with such a quantity of strange "crackers."
He was, after all, a rug salesman, not a baker!
Miraculously, after tense minutes watching the customs officer inspect the Hebrew writing on the boxes, Zalman was waved through customs.
His contact had failed to meet him at the airport, and so, at 3 am, Zalman hailed a taxi and asked to be taken to a major hotel.
He checked in, but to his consternation, the room was on the eighth floor.
Using the stairwell was not permitted by the hotel and using the elevator on Shabbat and Yom Tov is not permitted by the Torah!
Fortunately, the hotel management agreed to give him a room on the first floor.
Zalman immediately phoned the Jewish doctor who was to serve as the liaison between him and the Iranian refugees. By Divine Providence, Zalman's hotel was right across from the doctor's hotel.
Zalman quickly met him and they went together to the dilapidated outskirts of the city where the Jews were hiding.
It was with great emotion that the refugees greeted the young yeshiva student who had traveled so far to bring them not only Passover food, but hope, when theirs was all but gone.
The first night of Passover, Zalman participated in a joyous, secret Seder for thirty of the refugees, all that could "safely" gather in one group.
The rest of the refugees gathered in smaller groups and also had sedarim.
As they read from their Hagada's, the refugees couldn't help but associate their own miraculous rescue with that of their Persian ancestors on Purim in Shushan so long ago, and they poured out their gratitude to G-d for the mercy He had shown them in this strange and hostile country.
The second Seder was celebrated in the same joyous spirit, and during the intermediate days of the festival, having succeeded so well in his mission, Zalman returned to the United States carrying the thanks of the refugees to the Rebbe and all the others who had made their Passover celebration a reality under such impossible conditions.
The moral courage and support of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the willingness of a courageous young Chasid to put himself at risk for another Jew -- that is the epitome of the teachings of Chabad in action, and that, in itself, is the miracle.
Rabbi Zalman Gerber, and his wife, Miriam, are now emissaries for the Rebbe in Overbrook Park, Philadelphia.