Israelis grapple with how to celebrate Passover amid war and months-long hostage crisis

Every year, Alon Gat’s mother led the family’s Passover celebration of the liberation of the ancient Israelites from Egypt thousands of years ago. But this year, Gat is struggling with how to recognize a holiday commemorating freedom after his mother was slain and other family members abducted when Hamas attacked Israel.

Gat’s sister, Carmel, and wife, Yarden Roman-Gat, were taken hostage in the Oct. 7 attack. His wife was freed in November but his sister remains captive.

“We can’t celebrate our freedom because we don’t have this freedom. Our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers are still in captivity and we need to release them,” Gat said.

On Monday, Jews around the world will begin celebrating the weeklong Passover holiday, recounting the biblical story of their exodus from Egypt after hundreds of years of slavery. But for many Israelis, it’s hard to fathom a celebration of freedom when friends and family are not free.

The Hamas attack killed some 1,200 people, while about 250 others were taken hostage, according to Israeli figures. About half were released in a weeklong ceasefire in November, while the rest remain in Gaza, more than 30 of them believed to be dead.

For many Jews, Passover is a time to reunite with family and recount the exodus from Egypt at a meal known as the Seder. Observant Jews avoid grains, known as chametz, a reminder of the unleavened bread the Israelites ate when they fled Egypt quickly with no time for dough to rise.

But this year many families are torn about how — or even if — to celebrate.

Not all in the family could escape 

When Hamas attacked Kibbutz Be’eri, Gat, his wife, three-year-old daughter, parents and sister hid for hours in their rocket-proof safe room. But fighters entered the house and killed or abducted everyone inside, except for his father, who hid in the bathroom. His mother was dragged into the street and shot.

Gat, his arms and legs bound, was shoved into a car with his wife and daughter. During a brief stop, they managed to flee. Knowing he could run faster, Roman-Gat handed him their daughter. Gat escaped with her, hiding in a ditch for nearly nine hours. His wife was recaptured and held in Gaza for 54 days.

The exterior of a badly damaged house.
People visit the Gat family house at Kibbutz Be’eri in southern Israel last December. It was left in ruins after Hamas attacked the home and others in the kibbutz on Oct. 7. (Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

Passover this year will be more profound as freedom has taken on a new meaning, Roman-Gat told The Associated Press in a text message:

“To feel wind upon your face with your eyes closed. To shower. To go to the toilet without permission, and with the total privacy and privilege to take as long as I please with no one urging me, waiting for me at the other side to make sure I’m still theirs.” 

Still, Passover will be overshadowed by deep sorrow and worry for her sister-in-law and the other hostages, she said. The family will mark the holiday with a low-key dinner in a restaurant, without celebration.

LISTEN | Reflecting on Passover, 6 months after Oct. 7

The Weekend Morning Show (Manitoba)12:13Reflecting on Passover six months after Oct 7th

Cantor Leslie Emery from Shaarey Zedek synagogue and Ruth Ashrafi, Regional Director of B’nai Brith Manitoba reflect on what the upcoming Jewish celebration of Passover means six months after the October 7th attack on Israel.

As hard as it is in times of pain, Jews have always sought to observe holidays during persecution, such as in concentration camps during the Holocaust, said Rabbi Martin Lockshin, professor emeritus at York University, who lives in Jerusalem.

“They couldn’t celebrate freedom but they could celebrate the hope of freedom,” he said.

The crisis affects more than the hostage families. The war, in which 260 soldiers have been killed, casts a shadow over a normally joyous holiday.

The government has also scaled back festivities for Independence Day in May in light of the mood and the fear of public protests.

Muslim Palestinians felt impact on Eid

Likewise, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, capped by the three-day Eid al-Fitr feast earlier in April, was a sad, low-key affair for Palestinians. More than 80 per cent of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been displaced by the fighting, and Hamas health officials say nearly 34,000 people have been killed in the Israeli offensive.

The scenes of suffering, devastation and hunger in Gaza have received little attention in Israel, where much of the public and national media remain heavily focused on the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack and ongoing war.

Men prepare unleavened bread at a bakery.
Jewish men prepare matzo, unleavened bread, at a bakery in Jerusalem on Thursday to mark the Passover holiday. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

After several months of fits and starts, negotiations on a deal to release the remaining hostages appear to be at a standstill — making it unlikely they will be home for Passover.

The hostages’ pain has reverberated around the world, with some in the Jewish diaspora asking rabbis for prayers specifically for the hostages and Israel to be said at this year’s Seder.

Revised Haggadah urges people not to hate

Jewish studies scholar Noam Zion has authored a new Haggadah, the book read during the Seder, to reflect the current reality. He has donated 6,000 copies to families impacted by the war.

“The Seder is supposed to help us to relive past slavery and liberation from Egypt and to learn its lessons, but in 2024, it must also ask contemporary questions about the confusing and traumatic present, and most important, generate hope for the future,” said Zion, emeritus member of the faculty of Jewish studies at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

The revised Haggadah includes excerpts from hostage families urging people not to hate despite their pain. It offers a guide for navigating mixed feelings during the holiday, while posing existential questions about Jews and the state of Israel.

WATCH | ‘Added urgency’ for Israel to bring hostages home alive after ‘horrific accident,’ says father of hostage:

‘Added urgency’ for Israel to bring hostages home alive after ‘horrific accident,’ says father of hostage

Jonathan Dekel-Chen, whose son Segui has been held hostage since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, says the mistaken killings of three Israeli hostages by Israeli troops in Gaza should further galvanize the Israeli government and other involved parties to bring the remaining hostages home alive.

Some families say it’s too painful to celebrate at all.

The girlfriend of Nirit Lavie Alon’s son was abducted from the Nova music festival. Two months later, the family was informed by Israel’s military that Inbar Haiman, a 27-year-old graffiti artist, was dead, her body still in Gaza.

“It’s impossible to celebrate a freedom holiday,” said Alon. Instead of being with family this year, she’s going to spend a few days in the desert. There will be no closure until all of the hostages are back, including the remains of those who were killed, she said.

Ahead of Passover, some families are still holding out hope their relatives will be freed in time.

Shlomi Berger’s 19-year-old daughter, Agam, was abducted two days after the start of her army service along the border with Gaza.

Two women sit at a table and the one on the right holds a photo.
Ashley Waxman Bakshi, left, and Li-Yam Berger, cousin and sister of Agam Berger, an Israeli hostage held by Hamas, attend a news conference after meeting with Pope Francis in Rome on April 8. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

Videos of her bloodied face emerged shortly after the Hamas attack, one showing an armed man pushing her into a truck, another showing her inside the vehicle with other hostages. The only proof of life he’s had since was a call from a released hostage, wishing him happy birthday from Agam, who she’d been with in the tunnels, he said.

Still, he refuses to give up hope.

“The Passover story says we come from slaves to free people, so this is a parallel story,” Berger said. “This is the only thing I believe that will happen. That Agam will get out from darkness to light. She and all of the other hostages.”

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