Passover celebrants urged to set a seat for a hostage, use a Haggadah of hope

A variety of projects have been created to help people mark this festival of freedom despite war, hostages and bereavement

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

A page from the Haggadah of Hope created for Passover 2024 by the Hostages and Missing Families Forum. (Courtesy)
A page from the Haggadah of Hope created for Passover 2024 by the Hostages and Missing Families Forum. (Courtesy)

As Passover approaches on April 22, many of those who celebrate are bewildered as to how to mark this holiday of freedom with the country traumatized by war and with 133 Hamas hostages still held captive in Gaza.

“It’s like two clocks are going all the time, one is the spring season and the hot sun and this holiday and the other is October 7 and the hostages,” said Yotvat Fireaizen Weil, a social activist who came up with a Passover project to help understand the dichotomy of this moment.

Fireaizen Weil and a team of social activists are calling for Jews in Israel and around the world to add an extra chair to their holiday table, as a symbol and expression of hope for the hostages.

The “Save An Empty Chair for the Hostages” campaign calls upon people to leave one empty chair at their Seder. Participants can download illustrated portraits of a hostage to join their Seder, with information about the hostage and who they were before October 7.

“This Seder won’t be the regular Seder, it can’t be,” she said, “but this is very simple and it’s the minimum we can do, because if we’re going to go on and hold a Seder, something can’t be the same.”

As Fireaizen Weil and her fellow social activists thought about Passover, they remembered the Jewish tradition from the 1970s and early 1980s, when Jewish refuseniks were held in Russian jails and extra chairs were placed at holiday tables and gatherings, as the global Jewish community waited for them to be freed.

An image from the ‘Save An Empty Chair for the Hostages’ for the Passover Seder on April 22, 2024, this one for hostage Avinatan Or. (Courtesy)

“We’re in something like that,” said Fireaizen Weil. “There are people being held in Gaza who aren’t with their nation or families or home or community. Nothing feels normal.”

It also harks back to the Passover tradition of leaving a seat for the Prophet Elijah.

Participants are encouraged to take a picture of their empty chair and post it on social media with the hashtag, “#Let_my_people_go.”

What to read at the Seder this year

The question of handling this Passover has troubled the volunteers at the Hostages and Missing Families Forum for the last month, said Itay Shemberger, as they understood that a hostage release deal probably wouldn’t happen before the holiday.

“We wanted to understand what we could do as we got closer to the holiday,” said Shemberger. “It’s impossible to call for freedom with so many captives, to read the Haggadah and not see yourselves there.”

It took about 30 days to put together the Haggadah of Hope, edited by the Forum, with commentaries by chief Rabbi David Lau, educator Miriam Peretz, Kibbutz Be’eri member Haim Jelin, Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, singer Rita, and the parents of hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin, Rachel Goldberg and Jon Polin, in the English language version.

“It’s people from the entire spectrum of Israel,” said Shemberger.

There are versions in English, French and Spanish, and copies of the Haggadah reader are being sold in Israel, England, Australia, the US, as well as the digital copy that can be downloaded and printed at home.

The Forum also created some 40 personalized editions of the Haggadah, in English and Hebrew for certain leaders, including US President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog.

“It’s on its way to President Biden right now,” said Shemberger.

Chief Rabbi David Lau speaking at a unity rally for the hostages, before Passover, on April 18, 2024, at Tel Aviv Hostages Square. (Screen capture/Courtesy)

Chief Rabbi Lau wrote a prayer for the Forum version of the Haggadah, which he quoted from during a unity rally for the hostages held in Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square on Thursday night, reading,

“…may they quickly emerge from darkness to light,
and from the pit of captivity to the freedom of the world,
and return in peace to their families and to their homes.”

The Hamas terror group launched an assault on Israel on October 7, killing some 1,200 people and taking another 253 hostage. There are currently 133 hostages in Gaza, some of them believed to be dead.

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