For many Israelis this Passover, celebrating the Festival of Freedom feels impossible

An Empty Shabbat Table installation comprised of 133 empty chairs representing the Israeli hostages who remain captive in Gaza over six months from the Hamas attack was on display in Edmonton last month.

TEL AVIV (JTA) — This year, Noam Safir and her family will order takeout for the Passover seder because her mother Moshit has no energy to cook a festive meal, as she has done in past years.

Moshit is the daughter of the oldest Israeli hostage held by Hamas — Shlomo Mansour, 86.

“It’s going to be less of a celebration and more of marking the holiday,” Safir, 20, told reporters in a video call this week.

It’s a sentiment that is widely shared this year by families of the hostages and the millions of Jews in Israel and around the world who have mounted a sweeping advocacy campaign pressing for their release. The Passover holiday begins on Monday, when Jews are traditionally read through the haggadah, which recounts the story of the Israelites’ freedom from slavery and exodus from Egypt.

“I don’t even want to be a part of it,” Rachel Goldberg-Polin, whose son Hersh, 23, remains a hostage in Gaza, told the Times of Israel on Friday. “There’s something perverse about even going through the motions of celebrating a holiday of freedom from captivity when our only son is not free and is in the worst form of captivity that any of us can imagine. It feels completely inappropriate.”

For Mai Albini-Peri, 29, from Jerusalem, whose grandfather Chaim Peri was also kidnapped and taken to Gaza during the Oct. 7 attack, the Passover rituals feel almost impossible to carry out. “How can we celebrate such a holiday while 133 people are still without their freedom, still waiting to be liberated?” he asked.

On Oct. 7, Peri hid his wife in the safe room and went out to fight the invading terrorists. “My grandpa sacrificed his freedom to save his wife,” Albini-Peri said. He went on to note that his grandfather, who marked his 80th birthday last week in captivity, was a peace activist who drove sick children from Gaza to Israeli hospitals. “He dedicated his life to liberating oppressed people wherever,” he said.

Safir said her family will leave an empty seat at the seder table for Mansour. Jews in other parts of the world, including London and Los Angeles, have been asked to do the same in honor of the 134 hostages still in captivity.

Some families will be using a haggadah sold by the Hostages and Missing Families Forum and produced by the print shop at Kibbutz Beeri, where 90 residents were murdered and 20 taken hostage on Oct. 7. The haggadah features an essay by Goldberg-Polin and her husband, Jon, that adds a fifth question to the holiday’s traditional four: “Why are our loved ones not sitting at the table with us?”

In Israel, the head of the Tzohar rabbinical organization, Rabbi David Stav, said it was “impossible to celebrate this holiday without calling out to the heavens that the captives should be taken out from the darkness in which they are being held in and into the light of freedom.”

Stav added, “That empty chair should be used as a teaching moment for our children to ask an additional ‘fifth question’ so that they can understand what makes this year different and what they might be able to do to help bring the hostages home.” Tzohar also recommended dedicating the symbolic fifth cup of wine at Seder, traditionally known as Elijah’s Cup, to the hostages and to say an additional prayer composed by the group in light of the war.

But not all of the hostage families are incorporating a new ritual this year.

“We don’t need physical symbols because we’re living it every day,” said Talya Dancyg, 18, whose grandfather Alex Dancyg was kidnapped from Nir Oz. The elder Dancyg was the one who would lead the seder every year. “Usually my grandpa is the one who takes the show, telling the jokes and the stories. This year it won’t be like that.

“It’s called ‘leil haseder’ but it won’t have any seder,” she added, referencing the Hebrew word for order. She did add, however, that her family would be taking time at the seder to acknowledge how their own lives were saved on Oct. 7. “My family was saved from Nir Oz,” she said. “We get to say thank God for giving our lives back.”

Dancyg, who lived with her grandfather growing up, spoke of the close bond she shared with him. “I talked with him about everything. I talked with him about love and he was responding like a 16-year-old boy.”

It’s not only hostage families whose experience of Passover has been altered. For Israelis, the festival is the first major Jewish holiday since Oct. 7, which was itself the festival of Simchat Torah, and many Israelis are feeling unease, especially amid a recent flare-up of tensions with Iran that included the launch of 300 drones and missiles at Israel.

The first night of Passover, when much of the country pauses for families to gather, has seen terror attacks in the past, such as when a hotel hosting a seder in Netanya was bombed in 2002, killing 30, the deadliest single attack of the Second Intifada. Israeli officials believe Hamas initially planned what became the Oct. 7 attack for Passover last year but delayed after security was elevated.

The Netanya bombing targeted extended families who had gathered at the hotel, in keeping with Israeli tradition. But for many of the roughly 118,000 Israelis who are evacuated from their homes because of the war, this year a joint seder won’t be possible, with members of the same family scattered in different hotels all over the country.

In one of the larger hotel chains along the Tel Aviv boardwalk, evacuees are particularly disgruntled after being told that their seder will be held in a separate room from the tourists from overseas. Evacuees were also told they couldn’t use the hotel’s pool over the busy holiday period. “It’s as if we’re outcasts,” one woman, Shula, who declined to give her last name, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Among the organizations in Israel that are hoping to alleviate the challenges posed by Passover for evacuees is Colel Chabad, which has more than 25,000 people registered for its communal seders all over the country. Another is the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which is distributing close to 19,000 debit cards amounting to a total of more than NIS 18 million  ($4.8 million) for evacuated families to use towards purchasing food items for the holiday.

“’All who are hungry, come and eat’ is something recited at every Passover seder around the world,” IFCJ President Yael Eckstein told JTA. “With so many evacuees not in their own homes, and so many suffering from loss or the unknown fate of their loved ones, this will be a Passover like none Israel has ever experienced before. Our commitment is to continue to help feed and provide for those who need it, how and where they need it.”

Medical aid group Yad Sarah is assisting evacuees, the wounded and the elderly holding non-traditional seders by providing at-home hospitalization supplies and accessible transportation to seder destinations on Passover eve.

Other efforts are underway to ensure that Israelis are able to observe and celebrate the holiday, wherever they are. With a larger-than-normal number of soldiers on active duty, army bases will be hosting more seders than usual. (Israel’s top court rejected a request to allow soldiers to eat chametz, leavened food that is barred on Passover, on their bases.) And in a particularly heart-rending effort this week, a top government minister implored the United Nations to ensure that Israeli hostages in Gaza can access the ritual foods — grape juice and matzah — needed to fulfill the most basic commandments on Passover.

In Tel Aviv’s Hostage Square, thousands gathered this week for a “Unity and Freedom Rally” ahead of Passover.

Eli Bibas, father of Yarden Bibas and grandfather to the youngest hostages held by Hamas, 4-year-old Ariel and 1-year-old Kfir, said that from his perspective, “Passover was not a holiday” this year.

A day earlier, new video footage emerged of a bloodied Yarden being taken by his captors through the streets of Gaza on Oct. 7 as an angry mob surrounded him. The older Bibas said the footage was “devastating” to watch, especially as the family’s hopes dimmed that a deal for the release of additional hostages might be reached before Passover.

Yet he told JTA that he had made a painful calculation about the seder night, one that Jews in dire circumstances have made many times throughout history.

“Nevertheless, because we have other grandchildren, we’ll sit at the table and celebrate — that’s the wrong word — we’ll spend the holiday together as a family, albeit a broken one,” he said.

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