Bronya Shaffer's Women's Seder
April 15, 2011
Barbara Sofer , THE
On 14 and 15 Nisan, 11 women
will tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt in great detail.
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
"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
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
"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.