Haggadah and Matzah 521.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Small round tables are set near each of the living room couches so that the
women can recline in comfort.
Even the piano bench is draped in white.
Tonight, 11 women will tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt in great detail.
They will speak of being slaves in Egypt, of signs and wonders, of Pessah, matza
and maror. When it comes time for the meal, they will adjourn to the dining room
set with fine china. Hands aplenty will help serve the fish, the soup, the
chicken in wine.
Welcome to Bronya Shaffer’s Women’s Seder. It isn’t what
The concept of a Women’s Seder is usually associated with a
pre-holiday model Seder held in the fortnight before Pessah.
a community gathering emphasizing the role of women in the Exodus by extruding
biblical commentary and/or adding contemporary readings.
four sons of the traditional telling become four daughters.
Prophet and her life-giving well receive the prominence due them, as the Pessah
Seder is reinterpreted in a feminist context. The idea of Women’s Seder was
first invented in Israel in 1975.
Writer E.M. Broner, who was spending a
year teaching in Haifa, collaborated with former MK Marcia Freedman and Naomi
Nimrod in writing a feminist Haggada.
Subsequent participants in New
York based Women’s Seders drew famous feminists (among them Bella Abzug, Gloria
Steinem, Grace Paley, Kate Millett), not all Jewish. The theme of national
liberation became a touchstone for the struggle in a variety of causes, as well
as a protest against the dearth of women’s voices in traditional Judaism. Over
the past three and a half decades, opportunities for serious women’s Torah
scholarship have vastly expanded together with the opportunities of leadership
within the Jewish community. Elements of the feminist Seder have entered more
traditional telling. Nevertheless, thousands of American Jewish women still
enjoy Women’s Seder community celebrations before Pessah.
Shaffer’s Women’s Seder isn’t a model Seder. It takes place on 14 Nisan, and
again on 15 Nisan, the first two nights of Pessah. Nearly all of the women are
stringently observant of kashrut, Shabbat and codes of modest dress. Most, like
Shaffer, live in Brooklyn and are Lubavitch Hassidim.
Born in France,
brought up in Montreal, Bronya Slavin Shaffer is a Jewish scholar, a teacher, a
counselor and an inspirational speaker whose advice and guidance on personal
matters and Judaism are sought around the world. She has represented the
observant Jewish woman’s point of view on hundreds of panels with voices as
disparate as Erica Jong and Manhattan Borough President Ruth
IN 1972, a family friend was visiting Princeton University in
New Jersey. He’d found a place to sleep in the dorm room of Gedaliah Shaffer, a
graduate student who was away for the night. From the curious combination of
Talmud, science and literature on the bookshelves, the friend deduced that
Shaffer might be a fitting soul mate for the beautiful and brainy daughter of
his friends Dr. and Mrs. Slavin (from the Chabad Slavin dynasty). His hunch was
correct. Bronya and Gedaliah Shaffer modeled love, respect and the possibility
of nurturing personal autonomy with the sanctity of marriage. They were blessed
with 10 children, all of whom continued their parents’ devotion to Chabad
Hassidic practice and belief without discrediting general knowledge and ideas.
One daughter, for example, is a physician; a son served in the IDF.
the 38 years of their marriage, the Shaffers’ red-brick home in Crown Heights
served as the hub of the extended family’s Pessah celebrations. Bronya’s mother
had lived with them, and so in addition to their own children and their
families, Bronya’s siblings joined them breaking matza on exuberant Seder nights
enlivened with Torah talk and song. Gedaliah was the leader, but everyone at the
elongated table in the floor-toceiling book-lined living room leapt in with
scholarly or personal interpretations.
Then, on March 7, 2007, a drunk
driver ran a light and killed Gedaliah Shaffer.
He was 61.
all the years of my life, the blessings of holiday were centered on family,”
said Bronya Shaffer. “The Seder was first my parents and siblings, then my
husband and my children, and then siblings and children and husband and
And then that first Pessah without Gedaliah, for the first
time in their lives, my children and I didn’t have the Seder at home. We went to
By the time Pessah came again a year later, I told my
children that I was determined that we experience Pessah differently, so we
thought about how we could create a new, different experience of
It would never be the same, so it was up to us to create – out of
this difference – something of significance.”
When one of the married
couples was asked to host Pessah in a Chabad House in Australia, the others
followed suit and volunteered to help make Pessah for beginners at various
Shaffer was free to celebrate as she wanted, and she knew
what she wanted to do.
“I decided to do what I’d never been able to do
before, and that was to provide a place where women could enjoy a Seder that was
not child-centered. At first I thought to invite singles, men and women... but,
as usual, there were many more women... so I decided to do it for women only. I
am blessed with family and with children... and could have any number of
opportunities to spend these evenings with the wonderful sounds of young
grandchildren reciting the Four Questions... but I thought of women who didn’t
have that... so the Sedarim are meant to be meaningful and fun... with the
unique vibe of an ‘adult women only’ evening.”
And so, Bronya’s Women’s
Seder was born.
SHAFFER’S INTUITION, reinforced by decades of counseling
singles and couples, was that for women who had never married, or others who
were divorced or widowed, being even a much-welcomed guest at a family Seder
wasn’t always a satisfying experience. When women became the focus of the Seder,
they wouldn’t have the awkward feeling of tagging along with someone else’s
To make it comfortable, she decided to limit each night to fewer
than a dozen women and to read the Haggada around little tables, and later move
to the dining room for the holiday meal.
Who would lead? Who would say
Kiddush? Who would hide the afikoman? Who would say the Four Questions? These
were among the queries most often posed by neighbors apprised of Shaffer’s
“We’re doing this together,” she would answer,
confident that 11 well-educated Jewish women could decipher the Haggada they’d
heard their whole lives.
“We’ll figure it out together.”
did the cooking. She decorated the house in delicate white cloth. Her guests
arrived and lit holiday candles floating in a huge glass bowl.
use a Chabad Haggada.
The familiar and beloved text had a visceral
resonance for them that couldn’t be supplanted.
“A leader emerged
spontaneously,” said Shaffer, noting the name of a divorced woman from an
esteemed rabbinical family.
One participant mentioned how her
self-respect had eroded as she watched her younger siblings, for whom she’d
babysat, grow up and establish their own Seder tables while she was still in the
same position as a child among other children because she didn’t have a
Another squeezed Shaffer’s hand in thanks: This was the first
time she’d ever felt the power of Pessah as it was meant to be, as a full
Said the Alter Rebbe: Eating “the bread of affliction” helps
us internalize the quality of selflessness represented by matza. It can lift a
person above the limits of time and make possible a presentday experience of
Confident as she was in making this night different from all
her other Seder nights, Shaffer anticipated how hard it would be for her as the
Four Questions approached. In hassidic households, children turn to their father
and announce that they will ask the Four Questions: Tatte, ich vel bei dir
fregen fir kashaos. So Shaffer had announced to her father. So their children
had addressed her beloved Gedaliah. Then she looked around the table, remembered
the challenges that each of the women at the table had overcome.
was indeed very much present: the Heavenly one.The writer lives in
Jerusalem and focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as
the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist
Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.