From the initial living room gatherings of the 1970s, feminist seders have grown to a national phenomenon. According to new estimates by Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project of the JCC on the Upper West Side, as many as 18,000-20,000 people—primarily women—are attending women’s and feminist seders each year.
Ma’yan, whose own series of feminist seders featuring Jewish folk singer Debbie Friedman draws more than 2,000 people each year, has sold some 12,000 copies of its feminist haggadah, The Journey Continues. And, says Ma’yan’s special events director, Ruth Silverman, there are many more seders and haggadot being created by other organizations and individuals. At the Ma’yan library, there are some 30 feminist/women’s haggadot—just the tip of the iceberg—some of them professionally published and many more put together by local women’s groups.
These seders, generally held before the actual Passover date, offer women the opportunity to reflect on their own liberations and enslavements and often feature group singing, dancing, poetry, female God-language, social activist programming and other innovations that might not make it into the traditional dining-room ceremony. They also have inspired women to look for other feminist innovations for Rash Hodesh (New Moon celebrations), Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah and other holidays. Women, says Silverman, who interviews seder organizers for feedback, “are hungry for women’s programming.”
While these innovative seders have drawn enthusiasm, they have also caused controversy in some communities that are resistant to this level of change. In one Connecticut community, the federation that organized the seder locked horns with the local board of rabbis objecting to feminine God-language. In a Pennsylvania community, according to Silverman, a rabbi denounced the woman organizer of a feminist seder from the pulpit. (She’s organizing again this year anyway, we hear.)
Often, says Silverman, the seders are collaborative efforts between Jewish community centers, synagogues and/or branches of women’s organizations like the National Council of Jewish Women. There are several college Hillels that run feminist seders, and at Dickinson College an individual professor has been organizing her own for about 100 students each year. Mostly, Silverman says, these occasions draw no men.