Religion

Israelis prepare for a Passover overshadowed by war and loss

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JERUSALEM (RNS) — As the normally joyous communal holiday of Passover approaches this year, many Israelis say the war in Gaza has dampened the prospect of holding a Seder — the communal retelling of the ancient Israelites’ escape from Egypt from enslavement based on the Bible’s Book of Exodus. 

“I think that over 50% of the people I know won’t be up to it.” said Naomi Efrat, a Reform rabbi who lives in Israel. “They will either be demonstrating at Hostages Square,” a public plaza outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, so-called because it’s where families of Oct. 7 hostages have gathered, “or simply avoiding the Seder because it’s too difficult emotionally.”

The eight-day (seven in Israel) holiday begins Monday night (April 22) at a time when more than 230 Israelis or their remains are in Hamas captivity after the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre and as Iran and Israel have been trading attacks over recent weeks. 

In Israel, some households are limiting the number of Seder guests out of fear that Iran or one of its proxies will attack Israel during the Passover Seder. While many homes and apartment buildings in Israel are equipped with bomb shelters, they are not large enough to accommodate guests. Many have no shelters at all.



Deborah Mintz, a resident of the southern Israeli city of Eilat who survived the Hamas attack on her daughter’s kibbutz, will be spending the holiday alone this year. “I am not doing a Seder this year. I can’t celebrate our exodus from Egypt when so many are captive and so many have died,” she said. She was helping her daughter after the birth of Mintz’s grandson, born Sept. 27, when Hamas infiltrated.

Mintz and her family were trapped in the reinforced room in her daughter’s home, “fire on one side, Hamas on the other. We shouldn’t have survived,” she said. “Many others in our situation didn’t, but our survival was purely down to luck. I have not returned to work. Our lives are different now. We are different now. We are all in ongoing therapy.”

A resident of the kibbutz Kfar Azza looks at destroyed houses near the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel, Nov. 13, 2023. The kibbutz was attacked during the Hamas cross-border attack on Oct. 7, killing and capturing members of its community. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

A resident of the kibbutz Kfar Aza looks at destroyed houses near the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel, Nov. 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Yael Vurgan, a Reform Israeli rabbi who works with residents of 10 Gaza-border kibbutzim, said Passover will be especially difficult for the people, like Mintz, who are living with ongoing trauma. Two of the kibbutzim under Vurgan’s purview — Nahal Oz and Kfar Aza — suffered especially grievous losses. Several of their residents are hostages, and the survivors are displaced.

“People from the Gaza border are saying, ‘How can we celebrate any holiday when so many people are still captive?’ The holiday of Passover is most of all a symbol of our freedom, but people feel ‘We’re not free if they, the hostages, are not free.’ People feel neglected by their state, they feel betrayed. They provided a Jewish presence on the border, they farmed their land, and expected the state and the army to protect them. They did their part, the state didn’t do theirs. Their hearts are broken,” Vurgan said.

While some Gaza-border residents believe all holiday celebrations should be canceled this year, others will rephrase their Passover liturgy “to relate to this unbelievable reality,” Vurgan said.

Israelis who have been spared immediate trauma from the war, and even many American Jews, are struggling with Passover this year.

“It is hard to imagine celebrating our people being freed while we so desperately want 133 of our people to be freed. I’m not sure exactly how the Seder will be different, but it must be different,” said Laura Ben-David, a Jerusalem resident, who will be gathering with her family around the table on Seder night. 

Arielle Bernstein, also from Jerusalem, said she is dreading parts of the Seder service. “I don’t think I will be able to recite anything that relates to enslavement. I definitely will break down uncontrollably during Shehechiyanu,” she said, referring to the blessing that thanks God for life and sustenance. “I don’t know how I will keep my anger under control when I get to the words ‘Blessed is the keeper of his promise to Israel.’”

Jenni Person, in Miami, Florida, said she is “a little concerned” about potential differences of opinion among her Seder guests. “I know we don’t have anyone coming who is ranting and raving anti-Israel/antisemitic narratives, but I don’t want to have to spend any time in my own home attempting to screw anyone’s head on right.”

If Jews around the world have one thing in common, it is the desire to make Passover meaningful and to remember the massacre’s victims.

Some say they will leave a wine glass empty and place an extra chair around the Seder table, or tell the stories of individual hostages or those who have died. In a special supplement related to celebrating Passover post-Oct 7, the Masorti Conservative movement in Israel is suggesting that Jews tie a yellow ribbon around the ornamental kiddush cup, used during the central blessing of the Seder, to remember the hostages.

Others said they would place empty flowerpots on the Seder table instead of flowers, to remember the evacuees uprooted from their homes. A lemon added to the Seder plate will serve for others as a symbol of bitterness that can be turned into something sweet.



Stanley Kaye, who lives on Kibbutz Alumim on the Gaza border, said he and his wife will be having a Seder with friends off the kibbutz, despite the heavy emotions swirling in Israel this week. Twenty-three foreign workers at Alumim were killed on Oct. 7 and six kibbutz members were injured while defending the kibbutz until the army arrived. 

If Jews managed to celebrate Passover in the Warsaw ghetto and in concentration camps, Kaye said, his family will do so as well.

“Although we are still in mourning,” he said, “we have a lot to be grateful for.”

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