Festival of Liberation?

New Haggadot, supplemental readings and initiatives look to bring the global state of affairs into this year’s Passover Seder

Organizations and individuals offer thoughts and commentaries as Jews around the world look to navigate a Passover in which over 100 captives remain in bondage

A hostage poster set upright on a chair at the table. A blooming flower added to the Seder plate. A poem by the mother of one of the captives. As more than 100 people languish in captivity in Gaza and increasing numbers of Jews around the world report hiding their identities in public due to rising antisemitism, this year’s Passover Seder — with its focus on liberation and freedom — is sure to be different from all other Seders. 

To bring the global state of affairs into this year’s Seder, Jewish and Israeli organizations, as well as individual authors, are offering new Haggadot, supplemental readings and recommended practices.

“When we say next year in Jerusalem… we want to say it with the conviction that those who are captive might be returned to their families,” Liz P.G. Hirsch, the executive director of Women of Reform Judaism, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

Her organization created a Haggadah insert with a prayer for captive women.

“The mission statement of the Haggadah is the line ‘B’chol dor vador chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo k’ilu hu hatza mimitzrayim,’ — ‘In every generation, we should see ourselves as someone who personally experienced the Exodus from Egypt,’” Hirsch said. “And this prayer is an opportunity for us to feel that deep empathy and express the pain and the connection that we have to those who are captive.”

Keeping the hostages in mind is essential at all times of the year for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Michael Wegier, the group’s chief executive, told eJP. Since Oct. 7, the board has held regular vigils outside the House of Parliament showing its support for the hostages. This Passover, it is asking the community to provide a “Seder Seat for a Hostage,” placing a hostage poster in their place.

“We don’t want to dampen people’s joyous celebration,” Wegier said. “It’s a mitzvah to celebrate Pesach, but nor could we go ahead as if it was any other year. We thought having an empty seat at the Seder dedicated to a hostage was a very appropriate way of keeping people’s minds focused on the hostage situation, whilst nevertheless continuing to celebrate Pesach with their family and friends and guests.”

Wegier  hopes the seat prompts conversations about how folks could do more as individuals and as a community to keep the hostages in the public eye. 

Similarly, other Jewish organizations around the world have created traditions to honor the hostages this year. The Hostages and Missing Families Forum created a Haggadah that was produced at the printing press on Kibbutz Be’eri, one of the hardest-hit communities in the Oct. 7 attacks, which has 20 residents in captivity. (The print edition in English is sold out, but a digital version is still available.)

The forum’s Haggadah includes the standard liturgy as well as essays and commentary related to the war and the hostages from — among others — Miriam Peretz, an Israeli educator and Israel Prize winner, who had two sons who were killed in combat, one of them two days before Passover. In her essay, Peretz recalls that year’s Seder almost immediately after the funeral with her son’s four children, who sang Mah Nishtana (Why is this night different from all other nights?). “Despite it all, we celebrated the Seder. We cried and sang with them in deep pain and continued reading in the Haggadah to the commandment, ‘I will not die for I will live,’” Peretz wrote.

The Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University offers an insert based on the hope that people can make meaningful changes to improve the world, even during dark times like today. It includes prompts to empower attendees by recognizing ways that struggles have helped them grow and ways their actions have improved the world.

The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles also created an insert acknowledging the hostages through poetry and new traditions including adding a date — a fruit that symbolizes resilience — to the Seder plate and opening the door for the hostages, similar to how Jews open it for Elijah.

Jews around the world performing similar new traditions is a powerful gesture, Mary Kohav, vice president of Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Community Engagement at the L.A. federation, told eJP, “We find strength in our unity.”

Jewish Women International and Seed the Dream Foundation are asking people to put a flower on their Seder plate as a way to stand in solidarity with not just the hostages, but all Israeli women who suffered due to terrorism.  

Meanwhile, many are adding prayers for peace and safety to their Seders, Eileen Levinson, the executive director of Recustom, an organization that brings a do-it-yourself view to Jewish traditions, told eJP.

Recustom, through its site Haggadot.com, allows users to pick and choose from over 100,000 Haggadah clips created by individuals and organizations to create their own Haggadah. One popular new supplement was created by the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis offering prayers for the return of captives, for soldiers and for the dignity and security of innocent lives.

In the past, new entries on Haggadah.com were uploaded to the site publicly by default, but this year, they began making them automatically private, Levinson said, because users are celebrating more intimately this year. 

“Our opinions vary so much,” Levinson said. “People are thinking more about what are they doing in their own Seder, versus what they’re going to share out with the huge audience of Haggadot.com.”

Even as Jews look more towards our immediate communities and families, they are in “a global Jewish crisis,” according to Tracy Frydberg, the director of the Tisch Center for Jewish Dialogue at ANU: The Museum of the Jewish People. To counteract that, they should look for inspiration in family stories, said Frydberg.

ANU created an intergenerational family Seder guide to provide prompts for parents and grandparents to share about their Passover Seders growing up, as well as their family’s Exodus stories of escaping challenges. Additionally, there are prompts about where participants were on Oct. 7, thinking about how it will play into their larger family narrative.

The guide was created in collaboration with Emory University psychologists. Robyn Fivush and Dr. Marshall Duke, whose research, based around 9/11, showed that going back through family stories — particularly looking at both the ups and downs of personal histories — builds resilience.

“This Seder, when we all come together, and there’s so much pain and unknown in our world, we have an opportunity to find comfort and to find hope in our family stories,” Frydberg said. “In tapping into where we come from, where we are now, and, ultimately, imagining together, where we want to go, not just as families but as a people.”

Not all of the new Haggadot available this year are directly connected to Oct. 7, however. To find hope, Seder participants can also be inspired by U.S. history and its connection to the Exodus, Stu Halpern, senior adviser to the provost and senior program officer of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University, told eJP.

Prompted by his kids’ fascination with American history and the hit musical “Hamilton,” Halpern co-edited a new Haggadah titled The Promise of Liberty, with essays by rabbis, journalists and educators across the political spectrum and religious denominations. The Haggadah discusses how everyone from  George Washington to Martin Luther King Jr. were motivated by the Jews escape from slavery.

“The United States has long drawn from the wellspring of the Exodus story for inspiration and to shape its own ideas and ideals,” Halpern said. The Promise of Liberty shows that “the State of Israel, the Jewish story, the Jewish people, should not be thought of as ‘you are either on our side or not on our side.’ This is something that has been a source of national American unity and reaches across the political aisle and has since our country’s inception.”

This year will also see the publication of the first translation of the Haggadah into Ukrainian, through a project funded by Project Kesher. In addition to being written in Ukrainian, the Haggadah — titled “For Our Freedom” — also features supplementary readings and a prayer for Ukrainian soldiers, according to the Religion News Service, which profiled the volume. 

Still, everyone has their own way to care for themselves during this difficult time, said Levinson, pointing out the wealth of mental health inserts Recustom provides. For many, caring for themselves might also mean holding a karaoke Seder or one parodying recent movies, popular Haggadot content at Recustom. “New parodies are almost obligatory for Jews with a sense of humor,” she said. “We need those moments of lightness.” 

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.