In the weeks leading up to Passover, I’ve started seeing flyers and friends’ photos pop up in my Facebook feed for “Man Seders,” events filled with booze, BBQ, and divrei Torah. These events have left me with a twinge of something more complicated than FOMO, and harder to pin down than just hunger pangs from the descriptions of the beer and meat pairings.
The origin of “Man Seders” is a bit murky: perhaps they began as a tongue-in-cheek response to the Feminist Seders of the 1970’s, which sought to pay tribute to women’s roles in the Passover story. In some instances the events have been used as a draw for men who felt disconnected from Judaism or unsure of how to participate in a seder.
The common protest that complaints about “Man Seders” are misplaced because shuls also host women-only programming misses the mark.
In Orthodox settings, the current crop of Man Seders can reinforce a boys’ club atmosphere in settings where no such reinforcement is needed. In recent decades many Orthodox shuls have made great strides to include women in the prayer experience, educational programming, and social events of the community. However, the common protest that complaints about “Man Seders” are misplaced because shuls also host women-only programming misses the mark: women’s only programming is necessary because it is not a default assumption in every Orthodox community that women will be welcome in every shiur, will find an available women’s section at every minyan, or will find their feedback welcomed and encouraged should they seek leadership roles on shul boards.
According to a 2017 Nishma Research Profile of American Modern Orthodox Jews, 66% of men say that they feel welcomed in shul, while only 56% of women say they do. Both percentages seem troublingly low, and if an event contributes to certain community members feeling excluded, it is worthwhile to engage with this reaction, even if the event continues. Although “Man Seders” are primarily social events, any event hosted or promoted by a shul reflects on and contributes to the overall atmosphere of the community.
66% of men say that they feel welcomed in shul, while only 56% of women say they do.
Per the OU’s own statement on women’s roles, “women should be actively included in conversations related to tefillah and synagogue atmosphere.” Active inclusion in conversations means more than just pausing for breath long enough to tell someone why their feelings about a certain issue are incorrect. If a “Man Seder” elicits eye rolls from some community members, it’s worth asking why. Maybe it’s related to the Man Seder, maybe it’s related to other issues in the community, or maybe it’s both.
This works both ways: I freely admit that I am sometimes guilty of falling into the trap of thinking that if only I explain my position well enough, people will come around to my point of view. I know that some things I see as problematic in the Orthodox community may seem harmless to others.
I would happily spend a slightly exorbitant amount of money to attend an event with bbq, beer, and divrei Torah.
When it comes to “Man Seders,” it’s not hard for me to see why these events are fun: I would happily spend a slightly exorbitant amount of money to attend an event with bbq, beer, and divrei Torah, and I also don’t begrudge my male friends their enjoyment of men’s-only bonding time. My feelings of unease towards these events partly stem from the fact that in certain cases they enforce traditional gender roles: the closer to Passover these events fall, the stronger the implication that this is a great time of year for men to enjoy a fun night out while women are scouring every inch of the home for chametz and planning the perfect seder menu. Pairing a “Man Seder” with a conveniently timed “Passover cooking class” the day before does not help this perception. The concept of male bonding being based on beer and meat also encapsulates a fairly narrow view of masculinity.
When an event like “Man Seder” takes place [it] bothers me for reasons that have more to do with the overall shul atmosphere than with the event itself.
Yet I don’t think that every shul that hosts a Man Seder necessarily harbors unwelcoming attitudes towards women or regularly reinforces traditional gender roles. I am less troubled by “Man Seder” events that are hosted by shuls that have made a deliberate and thoughtful effort to incorporate women into the communal fabric of the shul. What that effort entails varies from community to community depending on what is important to women in that community, and includes things like supporting women in administrative leadership roles, having shiurim that are open to women, making an effort to host female scholar-in-residence speakers with the same frequency as male scholar-in-residence speakers, providing good childcare options and multiple minyan times so that both members of a couple have the opportunity to attend davening if they want to, etc. When an event like “Man Seder” takes place at a shul that does few if any of those things, or does them as though the shul leadership is doing women a favor, then “Man Seder” bothers me for reasons that have more to do with the overall shul atmosphere than with the event itself.
As “Man Seder” season draws to an end for the year and we start to prepare for Passover seders with family and friends, I hope that we can all seek out ways to build stronger, more inclusive communities in the coming year.
Sarah Morrissey is a lawyer living in New York. Her favorite food is the sliced brisket sandwich from the Wandering Que food truck.
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