Rabbi Shimon Avitan, who immigrated from Morocco to Sderot 40 years ago, has not decided where to spend the Passover seder yet. He is torn between his commitment to his congregation and his desire to celebrate the holiday with his six children, who live out of town.
Last Passover, some 30 relatives sat around his table in Sderot. This year, only the rabbi, his wife Rosa and their youngest daughter, Shirit, remain. The rest of the children refuse to come to Sderot. The wine cooler will stay closed.
Like the rabbi, many families in Sderot will have to celebrate without out-of-town relatives. These Sderot residents include Yaakov Tamonu, Yosef Harat and Rabbi Eliyahu Ohana, whose children left when the first Qassam rocket struck. The tension of the past two days and the warnings of Qassam fire have stymied their efforts to persuade family members to come for the holiday.
The rabbi is reserved, but his heart is brimming. "I haven't decided yet. It's hard to leave for two days, especially on Passover. I can't leave the synagogue without a rabbi. But a holiday without the children is no holiday. The children haven't visited us since last Passover, and I miss them terribly," he says.
"I can't just pack up and leave after 40 years. I'm used to the community, the people, the neighborhood ... these things don't mean much to my family," he says.
His daughter calls to ask if he's decided where to spend the holiday.
"My daughter and wife are trying to persuade me to spend it with the children. She wants to see them and the grandchildren. It's hard for her," he says.
Tears fill Rosa Avitan's eyes. "If I stay here, nobody will come," she says. "I'm also afraid for them; they have children."
She has returned from her holiday shopping. "We're shopping and painting the house for Passover, but this holiday I feel like going to bed and sleeping, to block out the holiday and all the feelings. It pains me most to think that this house was alive and now we're two old people cut off from the world," she says.
Last Passover, seven families celebrated the holiday at the Avitan house: all the children and their families. "The children steal the afikoman, so they all want to sit next to me and get a present. They jump on me ... turmoil and joy all around you. Nothing is greater on that holy night," the rabbi explains. "This year, all that has been taken from us."
The festivity, family togetherness and post-prayer talks with friends have also been taken away, he says.
Yaakov Tamonu's two children will not be coming to Sderot, and Tamonu won't have a full seder this year, he says. He is used to the shaky economic state and daily fears, but cannot find solace on the holiday.
"It's hard, the children are afraid for the grandchildren. That's the price we pay in Sderot," he says.
His friend Harat's two children are celebrating the holiday out of town. The third wanted to go, too. "I asked him not to leave me alone. On this holiday of all holidays you leave me, I said to him. That persuaded him to stay," Harat says.
The two other children made excuses not to come.
"We're afraid, too," he says.
Coming out of the synagogue the rabbi meets his neighbor, Ziva Ben Sheetrit. "Have you made up your minds yet?" she asks the rabbi. "I've been begging the rabbi to come to us for Passover and not leave Sderot," she says. She and her nine brothers, some of whom have left the town during the past year, will be celebrating in their mother's house.
"They decided to come. I would not have wanted to take responsibility for their children. The holiday must be with family, in the place you grew up in, in your parents' house."
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