For Passover, Rabbi Jacob Luski remembers milestones of his life and faith

In a world of change, a rabbi recounts this consistent celebration.

Published April 10 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — For four decades, through the birth of three children, the construction of a synagogue and leading dozens of congregational Seders, Rabbi Jacob Luski has taught, counseled and prayed as the world around him changed.

"We have seen economic upswings and downturns," he said. "We have seen the words terror and terrorism become part of our daily vocabulary."

But through it all, the eight-day Jewish festival of Passover has remained the same.

"Over 3,000 years ago, we experienced the Exodus from Egypt and we've been celebrating it ever since," said Luski, who heads Congregation B'nai Israel of St. Petersburg.

Luski, as is customary at every Passover, will weave the holiday's theme of freedom into the fabric of contemporary life during his prayers at his family's Seder table on Tuesday, the second night of the holiday.

This year, he'll touch on the 69th anniversary of the founding of the modern state of Israel, the 50th anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem, and offer a reminder of the modern-day exodus of Jews from the former Soviet Union that began about 40 years ago.

Forty is also a theme for Luski. It was 40 years ago that he and his wife, Joanne, and their first child, daughter Yael, then 1, arrived at Congregation B'nai Israel. This year, he told the congregation that he will retire next spring — after Passover.

Joanne Luski, who can remember preparing for Passover while winding up a baby swing to keep an infant occupied, is looking forward to celebrating the holiday with the couple's four adult children and their families, who are now settled across the country.

On Tuesday, the couple will greet Passover guests at their home. Joanne Luski will serve a traditional menu that will include vegetarian dishes. During the Seder. Jacob Luski will use a Haggadah — the book that gives the ceremonial order for the Seder and lists the specific items, in order, to be enjoyed as the story of the Exodus from Egypt is retold.

Each year, he adds readings and explanations to make the retelling relevant in today's world.

"In these last 40 years, we saw the freedom of Soviet Jewry. We shouted, 'Let our people go from all parts of the world,' " he said. "Over 1 million Jews from the former Soviet Union have resettled in Israel and around the world, many in our own community.

"And every year, we have concluded and shall conclude the Seder with the words, 'Next year in Jerusalem.' "

Jewish children, he said, now say those words without ever having known a divided Jerusalem.

The rabbi experienced his own exodus at age 11, when he and his late parents, Abraham and Rose Luski, his brother, David, and sister, Berta, landed in Miami from Cuba in 1960. Decades later, U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young would ask him to deliver the invocation before the U.S. House of Representatives.

"I had the pleasure of having my parents, my family there," Jacob Luski said, "and in his introductory words, (Young) mentioned that we had come as immigrants from Cuba in 1960 and here, 50 years later, I had the honor of offering that opening prayer in front of the House of Representatives.

"That's a personal experience of traveling from slavery to freedom, from communism to democracy, to a land where opportunities are available to all of us if we choose to make them happen."

The rabbi, who also serves as the Jewish chaplain at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center, met Joanne in Atlanta when he was a student at Georgia Institute of Technology and she was at Emory University. He received his master of arts from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and was ordained a rabbi in May 1977, the year Israel celebrated its 29th anniversary.

In August, he started his new job at Congregation B'nai Israel, arriving with his wife and baby Yael. The couple had three more children — Jeremy, Rachel and Naomi — and now have two grandsons.

In the past few weeks, as Jacob Luski prepared to celebrate Passover at home and at the synagogue, which is holding a First Night Seder for about 100 people this evening, he has been helping his wife. The holiday requires intensive cleaning. Every trace of chametz, the leavened products strictly forbidden during Passover, must be removed.

His wife is organized. "Because it is so much work, I started a month before," Joanne Luski said. "I actually have two lists. One list is a daily schedule and the other list is for the foods that I need to purchase."

Last week, her husband of 45 years supervised the window cleaners and washed her car. And shopped for fresh fruit and vegetables at Sam's Club, he added.

It's not just the thorough cleaning and cooking that's involved, though.

"Traditional Jewish families have a separate set of dishes, pots and pans, silverware and small appliances, just for Passover," Joanne Luski said.

The food, from appetizers to desserts, use only "Kosher for Passover" ingredients. Her menu this year includes homemade gefilte fish, traditionally made with pike and carp, using her mother-in-law's recipe. This year she's using salmon and cod.

Charoset, one of the symbolic foods placed on the Seder plate, is made with chopped apples and sweet wine and is symbolic of the mortar and bricks the Israelites were forced to make as slaves in Egypt.

"That's my mom's recipe and I've passed that on to my kids," she said.

The family treasures other Passover traditions.

"There are a lot of melodies that we use during the (Seder) service that are melodies that Jacob remembers from his grandfather," Joanne Luski said.

"My children, who didn't know him that well, learned those melodies from their grandfather," the rabbi said.

"We say during the Passover, 'from generation to generation,' " his wife said, referring to the obligation to recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt.

"I'm doing the same thing that my parents and my in-laws did and I trust that my children will do the same thing for theirs."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.