Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why is this Women's Seder different from all others?

If Purim is over then it must be the season for the Women's Seder!  The pre-Passover timing allows for women who have, traditionally, had their hands rather busy doing a lot of the behind-the-scenes work at the family Passover Seder, to enjoy creating and leading the ritual aspects of the Seder.  A pre-Passover Seder has also enabled some of the wonderful creativity - prayers, writings, stories, and music - that have emerged from the Women's Seder ritual over the decades to make their way into family and other communal Seders.

The first Women’s Seder took place in Haifa, Israel and Manhattan, NY in the USA in 1975.  The story of the early years and the text of the first haggadah written for the Women’s Seder can be found in ‘The Telling’, by E.M. Broner.  These early Seder gatherings represented the coming together of second wave feminism with Judaism as women who had previously felt excluded from a Judaism that was perceived to be patriarchal and exclusionary began to reclaim their heritage and Jewish women’s spirituality.  Sally Priesand had been the first US woman to be ordained as a rabbi in 1972, and Jackie Tabick was the first to be ordained in the UK in 1975.  The times they were a’changin’.

Since those early years, the tradition of a Women’s Seder has spread far and wide and has evolved considerably.  Many local communities have created their own haggadah, weaving together borrowed poems, stories, and songs with their own new liturgical writing and composing.  One organization based in New York City, Ma'yan, was instrumental in the spread of the Women's Seder internationally, with the music of the greatly missed Debbie Friedman, z'l, creating a phenomenon where, for a number of years, over 500 women a night would fill a room for 2-3 nights in a row for the Ma'yan Seder.

While a traditional haggadah makes no mention of the women who were so important to the unfolding of our people’s story of the journey from slavery to freedom, a Women’s Seder haggadah tells of the midwives, Shifra and Puah, Yocheved and Miriam.  While a traditional haggadah only retells the discussions and interpretations offered by male rabbis and scholars through the centuries, a Women’s Seder haggadah weaves together the words of women, and returns our voice to our people’s history and heritage.  Women have always passed on their wisdom and Jewish practices from generation to generation, and the Women's Seder at Congregation B'nai Israel always includes structured sharing of stories, questions and answers, where our bat mitzvah students share their stories with older generations and vice versa; its a multi-generational gathering.

This year’s Seder is different from all of our previous Women’s Seders at Congregation B’nai Israel; this year we welcome our Christian and Muslim sisters in faith to join us for a Seder ritual that celebrates the themes of Freedom and Peace, weaving together the inspirational sources from our three faith traditions. This Seder is inspired by the pioneering work of Rabbi Arthur Waskow and The Shalom Center who formulated the first Seder for the Children of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar in 1999.  Our Rosh Hodesh group has spent the year in a series of interfaith interactions with women from local churches and Muslim communities, and we look forward to welcoming them all to our Passover Seder.  The goal is not to provide a 'model Seder' for the benefit of our sisters-in-faith, but to use the Passover Seder model and message to weave together lessons, songs and inspiration from all three faiths to inspire us to think and engage more deeply with the Passover message.

The Seder takes place at Congregation B'nai Israel, Bridgeport, Thursday, March 31st, 7:30 p.m.  It is free and open to all women from the local community.  RSVP to reserve a seat with

I hope to see you there!
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

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