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Gaza hostages raise painful reminders as Jews prepare for Passover

At Sinai Temple in west Los Angeles, blue ribbon marks off more than 130 seats that stand as reminders of the hostages who remain in Gaza following the Oct. 7 attack on Israel
Jason DeRose
At Sinai Temple in west Los Angeles, blue ribbon marks off more than 130 seats that stand as reminders of the hostages who remain in Gaza following the Oct. 7 attack on Israel

At Sinai Temple in west Los Angeles, Rabbi Erez Sherman unlocks the sanctuary doors and walks toward row after row of seats marked off with blue ribbon. Each seat represents a hostage Hamas took during the October 7th attack on Israel.

"We decided to put names and ages on 14 rows," says Sherman, "which is about 240 seats."

The congregation has removed the names of those released. Still, more than 130 seats remain set apart to remember those who remain captive.

"This is our Hostage Square," says Sherman, gesturing to the rows and referring to a public plaza next to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in Israel where the families of hostages gather regularly. "These are our hostage seats."

The seats remind Sherman of words from the Haggadah – the ritual script for telling the Passover story during evening Seder meals.

"In every generation," says he, "we are obligated to see this story as if we came out of Egypt ourselves. It was always a metaphor. This year, it's reality.

Jews around the world begin celebrating Passover Monday night. The holiday recalls the story of Exodus – escape from Egypt and crossing from captivity into the promised land. This year's observation is poignant for many following October 7th.

Feeling embattled and longing for allies

The painful reality of the hostages is something Rabbi Nicole Guzik, also at Sinai Temple, says is particularly important to acknowledge at Passover.

"We must tell the stories of the hostages who are continuing to be held captive in Gaza," she says. "It's a reminder that the story from Egypt continues thousands of years later — all of the stories being held captive right now that won't be around a table during Passover."

The violence of October 7th and the rise in antisemitism that followed have been difficult, says Guzik, especially for many American Jews who stood with Black Americans, immigrants and LGBTQ people during the long fight for liberty and now feel abandoned.

"It's seen as if Jews don't deserve to have the same kind of allyship or Jews don't suffer as much as other minorities," she says. "I'm hopeful that the greater community and the world hears that, as a minority, there is deep suffering."

The need for conversation across difference

So that the greater community might better understand, Jewish Federations around the U.S. this year see annual interfaith Seders as opportunities for deeper conversation with neighbors.

"Resilience, strength, freedom, and triumph over adversity resonate across cultures and religion," says Mary Kohav, who heads community engagement at the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles.

"This year, there will be a lot of mourning. It's been a really tragic and traumatic time," she says. "You know, we hope bringing people together to experience this ancient ritual will provide some optimism for how we can move forward."

In the weeks leading up to Passover, the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles coordinated an interfaith Seder for more than 200 people. During the meal held last week, prior to Passover proper, participants were asked to talk about how they understood the themes of triumph over adversity and freedom in their own traditions and how those understandings might help bridge differences among people of faith.

Remembering the past, imagining the future

How to move forward, together, even as suffering continues in Israel, Gaza and the U.S. is a question without any easy answers. But asking the question at all gives hope to Robert Bank, president of the human rights organization American Jewish World Service. And, as he points out, asking questions is part of the practice of Passover.

"It is about this duality of both oppression and freedom," Bank says. "It is a Jewish time to reflect on what is broken in our world and what we can do to repair it."

Bank says the Israel-Hamas war also has him quoting and reflecting on the two millennia old words of the Rabbi Hillel: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" It's a sentiment that reminds Bank of the various levels of ethical obligation — to self, to community and to strangers — and the wisdom to discern when to act on those obligations.

Traditionally, Seder meals end with the phrase "Next year, in Jerusalem" which points toward a future when all Jews can celebrate the holiday in freedom and peace. But American Jewish World Service publishes a Haggadah with these closing words: "Next year, in a just world."

"It means we must remember the times where in fact human beings have created change for the better," says Bank, "because that makes it possible for us to do it again."

Remembering the past by telling Passover story does, he says, help people imagine something that isn't yet, but could one day be, reality.

"It means a prayer for peace for Israelis and Palestinians," Bank says. "It means hope."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jason DeRose
Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.