Temple Hillel holds Passover seder at Bell Tower for hostages

The organization displayed 133 empty seats at tables to represent Israeli hostages taken by Hamas.

Students, together with Hillel at Tempe, prepared a display by the Bell Tower Monday. | FERNANDO GAXIOLA / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Students in Temple’s Hillel organized a seder for Passover at the Bell Tower on Monday, displaying 133 empty seats to represent Israeli hostages taken by Hamas on Oct. 7, 2023, the start of the latest Israel-Hamas war. About 50 people attended the vigil, and a small program of speakers started at 5:30 p.m.

“This is not just Jewish people advocating for the hostages’ release, this is everybody who believes in peace coming together,” said an organizer for the event, a senior psychology major who chose not to share their name. “That’s why we did this event, not a response [to protests], because this is how the Jewish community comes together by sharing messages of peace and hope.”

Cups, glasses and matzah were displayed on tables to signify a seder, a Passover dinner celebration. Signs and flags reading “Kidnapped, bring them home,” “I am a Zionist, and I want peace” and “You can yell, you can swear, we ain’t going anywhere!” dotted the perimeter of the event.

An empty Passover Seder Table display. | FERNANDO GAXIOLA / THE TEMPLE NEWS

The hostage posters included their names, ages and the “Bring them home now!” graphic from the Hostages and Missing Families forum. Since the latest war began on Oct. 7, Hamas has held a total of more than 250 hostages and protesters have called for their return. Hamas returned more than 100 hostages in late November

“This display is to spread awareness that all these 133 hostages will not be attending their own Passover seder,” said another organizer, a junior accounting and MIS major who also chose not to share their name. “We believe that behind every poster here, behind every picture, is a person with a whole life behind them and whole personality. They are all people at the end of the day and should have the seder table to celebrate with their loved ones.”

Organizers, including Laurel Freedman, the executive director of Temple Hillel, spoke about the display and read poems and prayers. They also read the names of each hostage, to which the crowd responded, “Now,” calling for the hostages to be safely returned. 

“This display served as a solemn plea, an unwavering cry to end the conflict and a passionate call for the same return of those who were unjustly taken,” one of the signs read. “We pray that Israelis will be able to live in peace with their neighbors and that every man, woman and child in the region, both Jews and Arabs, no longer know the plight and horrors of war.”

Temple University Police Department and the Philadelphia Police Department were present at the event but did not interact with organizers or participants. Hillel and the Israeli American Council sponsored the event, along with some other programs and sponsors.

Laurel Klein Freedman, Acting Executive Director of Hillel at Temple, during her opening remarks. | FERNANDO GAXIOLA / THE TEMPLE NEWS

“With a current increase in the antisemitic incidents and words, particularly on college campuses, we truly hope to see better days ahead,” an organizer said. “We’re all humans, and we also hope that people who are not aware of what they’re saying become more educated and know that words matter.”

In the months following the Oct. 7 events, the Anti-Defamation League tracked a 337% increase in antisemitic attacks and incidents. On college campuses, there were 400 incidents compared to 33 in the Oct. 7 to Dec. 7 time period, a 1,112% rise.

Since Oct. 7, Hillel has held various demonstrations, including a vigil on Nov. 16 and tabling at the Howard Gittis Student Center to raise awareness for the hostages. 

“We all have to have each other, because as Jewish people, we are peaceful, we support each other,” said another participant and speaker at the event. “Through the support of each other, we all keep going. We’re all fighting for the same cause.”

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