Chernobyl survivors celebrate first seder American-style

A half hour before Passover, a 24-karat sun glowed over the Pacific — an ocean away from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine — looking as if the heat from its radiance might cause it to melt down into the silvery sea.

Inside San Francisco Sunset District's Adath Israel synagogue, 12 boys temporarily evacuated from their radiation-ravished land near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant celebrated their first seder.

Cheeks burnished by the light of numerous candles blazing on a foil-covered table next to his, 11-year old Dima Pozin of Smolensk attempted to answer in English the question posed by 12-year-old Leonid Moskovich of Tula. Moskovich later asked the question before more than 150 Russian immigrants and guests gathered in the room:

How does this night differ from all other nights?

"We don't eat chametz," Pozin explained, "we eat kosher-for-Passover, we eat matzah." He pointed to the word malia in one of the 500 Russian-Hebrew haggadot printed in Brooklyn, N.Y., and delivered by the mother of hostess Mattie Pil; Deborah Plotkin also provided handmade matzah from Brooklyn.

Reporting on the progress of a synagogue that he's helping to re-establish in Zitomir near Kiev, her husband, Rabbi Samuel Plotkin, compared the biblical Exodus from Pharaoh's Egypt to modern-day glasnost. "We didn't expect to get out" from under Communist rule, he said through a translator. But now, "we live in hope that in the coming year we'll all be in Jerusalem."

Till that time, the 12 former Soviet Union youths are on a pilgrimage in the United States, soaking up fresh air, pure water, non-poisonous food and all the free-wheeling American culture they can absorb in a year, under the auspices of Jewish Educational Center's Kids Overcoming Katastrophe program, headed by Pil and her husband, Rabbi Bentzion Pil.

"I think we're very lucky," said 15-year-old Roman Maximkin of Bryansk as he described their recent jaunt to Los Angeles. They met the mayor, toured Universal Studios, stopped off at Disneyland, and recuperated at an Embassy Suites spa in San Diego, which Maximkin pronounced as "cool."

The young men, who have been in the Bay Area since July, seem to be getting a lot of attention. San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown wants to see them at City Hall next month, said KOK program coordinator Mark Vosko; so does the first family, which has extended an invitation to the White House.

Rent-a-Computer provided them with three Compaq 46 Desk Pros with CD-ROM, the Good Guys gave them a modem, and CompuServe donated one year of online time, so they can call their parents once a month. The Marin Jewish Community Center invited them for swimming and basketball any time they can get up to San Rafael. "Beach Blanket Babylon" offered them free tickets to its show.

They've gone fishing in the ocean — 13-year-old Vova Dushakov of Smolensk caught a Ling cod that was half his size — and flying in a Cessna 172 Skyhawk with Vosko, a pilot.

Their medical condition is confidential, but Vosko acknowledged most of them have swollen lymph nodes and "they get colds more frequently than other kids." They're not the sickest victims of radioactive fallout. The center simply wanted to "get them out of a toxic environment, get them away from the trauma of everyday living," he explained.

They attend school six hours a day at Beth Aharon Day School in the Richmond District, learning English, algebra, geometry, biology, chemistry, Russian language and culture, Jewish culture, Hebrew, physics, history and geography. Then they play tennis at the Fulton playground. They also rent movies staring Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone and Jean-Claude Van Damme, and they practice their computer game skills on "Myst" and "Doom."

A cook provides their kosher meals in the Richmond District house where they live, but Mattie Pil said the boys, accustomed to a diet of potatoes in their homeland, are enchanted by 24-hour supermarkets and pizza. "Can you imagine feeding just one teenage boy?" she asked, as Maximkin wolfed down the gefilte fish off someone else's plate.

"Adopt me," he pleaded with a grin.

The kids followed along in their haggadot for awhile, but started getting restless when the crowd sang "Dayenu"; they picked at their horseradish and chimed in on the chorus.

The grape juice, however, flowed freely at their table, staining the tablecloth purple and their lips blue.

"I like to drink the wine," said 16-year-old Nepomniasky Osher of Bryansk, though ignoring a soup-bowl full of it sitting at an empty place, resembling, perhaps, a dish of borscht.