On the first night of Passover, Jews ask aloud, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
For a group of 150-plus women gathered March 22 at Congregation Beth El north of Washington, D.C., that traditional question was followed by an alternative: “Why is this seder different from other seders?”
Answer: “At other seders, men traditionally lead the service. At this seder, women are the leaders.”
Women’s seders are not new. The women who gathered at Beth El on Sunday, 12 days before the holiday begins on April 3, have been at it for 19 years. These seders began in or near cities with substantial Jewish populations about a generation ago, when fewer women played leading roles in synagogues and other institutions of Jewish life.
Today, women in the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements of Judaism in the U.S., which account for about 90 percent of synagogue-affiliated Jews, lead congregations as rabbis, cantors, and synagogue presidents.
Still, women’s seders proliferate, and each year, their guest lists grow.
Editor's Note: At the beginning of February, the United Nation celebrates World Interfaith Harmony Week. To mark the occasion the Tony Blair Faith Foundation asked people to share their stories of finding friendship and connection with someone of a different faith tradition. This is my story.
When it came time to read from the Torah — handwritten scrolls containing the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures that are kept in a special ark in every synagogue — something happened I’d never seen or experienced before. The Torah scrolls, which are kept in a blue velvet cover with gold embroidery, were taken down and passed to the congregation. I’d seen men in synagogue hold the scrolls, but I’d never seen them passed this way, from person to person, like the collection basket or the little trays of wine or bread in some of the churches I’d attended over the years.
I’m not Jewish, and in that little gathering of a dozen or so people, I think everyone there knew it. Still, when the scrolls got to me, the woman next to me, without a moment’s hesitation, placed them gently in my arms, like a newborn baby.
I’ve yet to conjure up the words to describe how that moment of inclusion felt. Sacred, yes. Grace-filled, absolutely. But also ancient — tying me to a whole history of a people whom I’d never before thought of as “mine.”
But they are. The Sechers are. The other people at the Bozeman synagogue were. The strangers at the supermarket where we bought matzo and wine were. The people who are reading these words are.
This evening I will lead a Passover Seder observance in my Christian community. We've done it for years and always find it inspiring to reflect on God's liberation from slavery. And it's the occasion for a delicious potluck feast.
This week I saw an article written last spring on Jews' concerns over Christians celebrating Passover. It seems that more Christian churches are using "Christianized" versions of the seder, reinterpreting the meal's symbols to reflect Christian beliefs. Said one rabbi, "They take our symbols, our holiday, our ritual and start investing them in Christian meaning."