Bronya Shaffer’s Women’s Seder

On 14 and 15 Nisan, 11 women will tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt in great detail.

Haggadah  and Matzah 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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 you think.
The concept of a Women’s Seder is usually associated with a pre-holiday model Seder held in the fortnight before Pessah.
It’s usually a community gathering emphasizing the role of women in the Exodus by extruding biblical commentary and/or adding contemporary readings.
Sometimes, the four sons of the traditional telling become four daughters.
Miriam the 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.
Bronya 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 Messinger.
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.
In 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.
“For 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 grandchildren.
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 my siblings.
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 Pessah.
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 Chabad houses.
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 family.
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 unconventional plans.
“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.”
Shaffer did the cooking. She decorated the house in delicate white cloth. Her guests arrived and lit holiday candles floating in a huge glass bowl.
They would 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 husband.
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 participant.
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 liberation.
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.
Tatte 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.