by Debora Singer
What is your Seder night like? Does your father or grandfather sit at the head of the table and lead the telling of the exodus? Do you remember our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Do you discuss what the four sons have to say?
What about the righteous women?
Rene Cassin’s Women’s Seder was very different. Held on 12 March, it was timed for the same week as International Women’s Day (8 March). Although most women participating were Jewish, there were also women from other faiths. The age range was from 13 to over 90. Some women came with friends, some on their own. There was a friendly supportive atmosphere and a real buzz in the room.
The women’s Seder called upon the experience of the women of the Passover narrative, who played a role in the redemption of the Israelites, and women who advocate for freedom and equality in the present day, to inspire others to continue in their legacy.
Items on our Seder plate
The Seder was skilfully led by Rabbi Deborah Kahn-Harris who talked us through the four items on our Seder plate that evening: resistance, empowerment, solidarity and legacy. As examples, she interwove stories of women from the Bible. These included: Shifra and Puah, the midwives who resisted Pharaoh’s instruction to kill all Jewish baby boys; Leah and Rachel who supported each other in times of need; queen Esther who relied on her inner powers to empower a whole nation; and the simple power of love, as told in the stories of Ruth, Naomi, David and Jonathan.
Our speakers each focused on one of these four themes:
Dr Agnes Grunwald-Spier was unfortunately unable to attend. She had intended to speak about the brave doctors and nurses who provided abortions to Jewish women in concentration camps during the Holocaust. As the Nazis did not want more Jewish babies, they were killing pregnant women. “The juxtaposition of the midwives of Egypt and those courageous doctors in the Holocaust who killed foetuses to save their mothers from extermination by the Nazis is worthy to be considered at our Seder. They are all part of our Legacy and we should remember them with pride.”
Sally Berkovic alerted us to three extraordinary women who gave up motherhood and dedicated their lives to empowering thousands of children.
• Bertha Pappenheim (1859 – 1936, Vienna) was an activist, writer, poet, and translator of Jewish texts. “Those who have to miss the happiness of personal motherhood may have an opportunity for spiritual motherhood if they go the quiet way of helping children and adolescents whose actual mother may have failed.”
• Henrietta Szold (1860 – 1945, USA) established Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem and was active in Youth Aliyah. As a scholar, she was the first woman to attend classes at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Poignantly she said, “I should have had children. Many children – I would exchange everything for one child of my own.”
• Sarah Schenirer (1883 – 1935, Krakow) was the founder of Beis Ya’akov, a network of Jewish schools for girls. “I called them my daughters to my dying day.”
Laura Marks and Julie Siddiqi introduced Nisa-Nashim, the Jewish Muslim Women’s Network they set up. Their aim is to promote religious harmony, to empower and encourage leadership, and benefit the wider society through programmes and initiatives.
They emphasised the solidarity and friendships that come from women getting together and recognising their shared experiences. “It is not enough, nor is it right, to only stand for ourselves. We are in this together, as Jewish and Muslim sisters, especially when the hatred is targeted at women.”
Finally, Linda Berkowitz talked of her formulative experience of working as an activist and fieldworker for the Black Sash in South Africa in the late 1980s. Established in 1955, Black Sash was a group of liberal white women opposing the apartheid regime through non-violent action. This experience has provided Linda with a legacy that continues to inspire her pursuits.
Four daughters, four questions
As a twist to the Seder, instead of four sons, we had four daughters, each represented by a member of René Cassin staff, and each sharing their self-reflections on what social justice and social action mean to them.
Instead of Mah nishtanah, we asked “why is this right different from all other rights?” and in small groups we discussed four questions related to Rene Cassin’s programmes:
- What have we done to support the journeys of refugees and asylum seekers in these times?
- How do you understand hate crime, where have you seen it and what can we do to combat this poison?
- What have we done in our personal and professional lives to combat modern slavery?
- What actions have we taken to support the Muslim Uyghurs and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities?
Shining a light
The Seder night shone a light on the often untold and unheard stories of women’s resistance, empowerment, solidarity and legacy in our community and society. By sharing stories of heroic women, we hope to empower others to continue in their tradition. And if you are wondering “what about a men’s Seder?” the answer is every Seder is a men’s Seder!
Check out the René Cassin Women’s Seder Haggadah companion
What women attending the Seder have told us:
“A fantastic first for us all and a brilliant job you all did. Such care and attention to every detail and the book and programme were both fantastic. Rabbi Deborah, Sally, Laura and everyone spoke brilliantly.
Lots of overlap, relatable stuff and much food for thought for me. Honestly a privilege to be working with you all.
Thank you so much and yes, you have set a very high bar for any future seders from here on for me!”
“It was a lovely event last night – Well done to you and all those involved in creating such a moving and thought-provoking event.”
“The Seder last night was wonderful. Tania and I enjoyed it and were most impressed. You and your team obviously put a lot of thought and effort into making it happen and I think all present appreciated this.
You have set a precedent that you may have to follow annually, but not necessarily exclusive to women. Different aspect of human rights which the people of so many whole countries are denied, let alone women and minority groups.
How can we challenge the legal profession to think seriously about building on the International Criminal Laws we have had since 1948 that are still a long way from ‘fit for purpose’?”
“I wanted to drop you a quick line to wish you mazaltov on the Women’s Seder event last week. It was an absolutely lovely event – well organised, delicious food and great speakers. I think it was just the antidote we all needed to the doom and gloom that is occupying us all right now.”