Seder Is About Family, Food, Freedom. And Now, It’s Also About the War.

Bonnie Rosenfeld had 38 people crowded into her home in Rockaway, N.J., on Monday night. She has hosted Passover Seders for years, but none that felt quite like this. She wanted to address “the elephant in the room” up front.

So as they lit candles to mark the start of the holiday, they also recited a set of prayers alluding to the war in Gaza — for the remaining Israeli hostages, for peace, for the horrors unfolding, she said, on both sides.

It was, in her eyes, a recognition of the obvious:

“This night is different,” said Ms. Rosenfeld, invoking the Four Questions traditionally recited on the holiday. “This Seder is different.”

That sentiment echoed around the country this week, as families and groups of friends gathered for the start of Passover amid the complicated swirl of emotions and fiery political debates stirred by the monthslong Israel-Hamas war.

The festive holiday, for many, has instead felt solemn. And its familiar rituals, this year, have seemed anything but routine.

Dining chairs were left empty in symbolic remembrance of the remaining hostages. Guest lists were trimmed to avert interpersonal disharmony. Old stories and prayers took on new meaning. Timeworn rituals were tweaked to accommodate the off-kilter mood of the moment. Swords were crossed over generational lines.

“At first I felt concerned, like, ‘Oh, boy, this is a hard time to have a Seder,’” said Rabbi Susan Goldberg of Nefesh, an inclusive Jewish spiritual community on the east side of Los Angeles.

She realized, though, that the Seder table was the perfect venue for the kind of dialogue so urgently needed.

“It’s so direct in the Seder,” she said. “When we talk about freedom and captivity, how do you not think about the hostages?” She added, “Then we say, ‘Let all who are hungry come and eat,’ and how do we not think about the people in Gaza who are starving?”

But dialogue can be messy, and many observing the holiday this week struggled to navigate the inevitable tensions of the moment.

Sydney Shaiman, 26, noticed her parents were stressed over the weekend about the Seder they were hosting for 15 people at their Manhattan home. They were concerned that political debates might leave guests offended. At the same time, they felt ignoring the vivid connections between common Passover themes — of liberation, freedom and oppression — and current events would leave the Seder devoid of substance.

Late Sunday night, in an effort to diffuse the tension before it even materialized, her father sent out an email to their guests, she said, that stressed “the importance of coming to the Seder with an open mind and a willingness to engage in conversation and opinions that may differ from your own.”

The effort, in the end, was a qualified success: Ms. Shaiman said she felt like guests were walking on eggshells.

Some Seder attendees chose to find solace in the customs and ritual cadence of the holiday and evade, briefly, a topic that has otherwise been inescapable.

Lindsay Gold, 43, who traveled from Miami to be with relatives in Los Angeles, said her family’s Seder went by without any mention of war.

“I think it made it more peaceful to be able to just focus on that,” she said.

But other families overturned old rituals in acknowledgment of these extraordinary times.

In Minneapolis, Ashley Cytron, 85, was overcome with emotion during the Seder at his son’s house, where two dozen guests went around the table reading the names of the Israeli hostages, one by one. At Mr. Cytron’s suggestion, they also assembled a place setting in front of an empty chair with a red rose, yellow ribbon and a mound of salt — echoing the “missing-man tables” common at military gatherings.

“We can’t forget,” he said. “All of us, we can’t forget.”

Ben Cooley, 54, the communications director for IKAR, a progressive Jewish community based in Los Angeles, hosted a Seder this week with about 15 people. (He called it the only major Jewish holiday “that’s totally D.I.Y.”)

His family’s Seder, in the past, has been an opportunity to open up about personal struggles. They had a tradition where they would each write their own “Egypt” — something that they felt was holding them back — on slips of paper, then burn them in a bowl. It could have been a job or relationship. Children wrote down, “My homework.”

This year, the family scrapped that activity and instead read from a Seder supplement that touched on the importance of not avoiding the clashing emotions that many Jews feel: rage and an impulse for vengeance for loved ones lost on Oct. 7, fear about antisemitism, as well as horror at the suffering of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

“The big change was getting out of the personal,” Mr. Cooley said. “This is not about us.”

Debates and, in some cases, discomfort were unavoidable at many Seders across the country.

Aimee Resnick, 19, celebrated the holiday at her family’s home in Centennial, Colo., taking on many of the hosting duties because her mother was out of town. This year, those included trying to referee conversations among her family’s 25 guests, including her two grandmothers.

“​​My maternal bubbe is very pro-Israel,” said Ms. Resnick, a student at Northwestern University, near Chicago. “My paternal bubbe supports the Palestinian people.”

At one point, Ms. Resnick tried to intervene.

“I was like, ‘Grandma, stop,’ and she replied, ‘I don’t want to stop. This is important,’” Ms. Resnick said. “So I walked out of the room.” She added, “That’s one of the benefits of being the hostess: You can stay in the kitchen.”

Ms. Resnick said her group skipped some passages of their traditional Haggadah that seemed dissonant with the realities of the conflict. She said she sensed discord between the Seder’s older guests and the younger ones, some of whom were involved with pro-Palestinian activism.

The generational divide was also clear in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where Eleanor Levy, 83, hosted a Passover dinner for a dozen friends and family members. For decades, she had used the Haggadot supplied by Maxwell House, the coffee company, that were readily available at the supermarket. This year, she brought out a contemporary book of prayers with prompts meant to provoke discussions about oppression and peace and freedom.

It worked. At one point, her 26-year-old grandson, Nolan Dahm, got into a disagreement — “a heated discussion,” in his words — about the protests at Columbia University with some of the octogenarian guests.

The scene — the inquiry, the argument, the mutual respect — was precisely what she wanted.

“To me, that’s the Jewish way,” said Ms. Levy, who ultimately ended the conversation by bringing out a platter of potato kugel. “You ask questions, and if there’s something that’s not right, you talk about it, you learn about it, you educate yourself. I’ve been alive long enough to know you won’t change everybody’s opinion in a discussion. But for me, it’s a sign of being alive.”

Reporting was contributed by Jill Cowan, Corina Knoll and Livia Albeck-Ripka in California.

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