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Surprising Seders Safe Space for Battered Women

While the afikoman has long since been found, we thought it well worth mentioning two special seders that took place last Passover, which can provide ideas for planning your community seder next year.

Surrounded by their own artwork, reading and speaking their own words from a hagada they created, 26 women in the Seattle area gathered in secret to celebrate freedom—their own. Why a secret? Many of the women—current or recovering victims of domestic violence—could only participate in such an event without their abusers’ knowledge. And while most have physically left their abusive situations, many are still ensnared in messy court and custody battles or have been slandered within their communities.

This seder, now in its second year, was conceived by Alison Iser, Community Advocate for the Eastside Domestic Violence Program in Bellevue, Washington. “It’s something I wanted to do for years,” said Iser. “There’s a natural connection between the Passover story and the stories of battered women. It’s a great opportunity to use the seder as a context to explore those stories more.” Iser’s goals were to find others who shared her passion for creating the seder and to include as many people as possible in the effort.

Iser met her goals. Sponsored by more than 15 state and local agencies and members of the Seattle Jewish community, the seder offers women an opportunity to celebrate Passover and Judaism with other Jewish women who identify themselves as battered. One woman wrote in her post-seder evaluation, “Knowing that the community actively supported this event gives me a feeling of love and nourishment.” Another wrote, “I have had to practice being Jewish in hiding for 15 years so this opened new doors. Thank you.”

Of course, a seder alone does not a community make. In response to requests last year, Seattle’s Jewish Family Service’s Project DVORA, which helps Jewish victims of domestic violence, began hosting Rosh Chodesh groups. Jewish educator Ruz Guiko, of Herzl- Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation, and Michelle Lifton, the domestic-violence program coordinator of Project DVORA, regularly bring together women who have survived violence in their own homes to discuss the weekly Torah portion as it relates to their lives as battered women. Some have come to know each other and meet outside the agency walls, establishing and solidifying a community of survivors.

These women created artwork and portions of the hagada in workshops organized by the seder planning committee, volunteers from synagogues and family service organizations. In the specialized hagada’s Call to Hallel, the blessings for God, one woman writes from her own experience, “Oppression doesn’t come all at once, like a broken arm. When I look back I can see the steps down into despair. I can name some of them, but it is hard to find the first step. The one where you say, There! That’s when it began.’ I felt it for a long time, but one day, like the sky on a cold night, everything was clear Blessed One, guide us on our Journey, we have to go.”