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Liberation And #MeToo Collide At The Seder

Liberation And #MeToo Collide At The Seder

National reckoning on sexual harassment resonates with the holiday of freedom.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at

A seder of one’s own: Some of the participants of the 7th Annual Women’s Seder, which took place at Sutton Place Synagogue. Courtesy of Sutton Place Synagogue
A seder of one’s own: Some of the participants of the 7th Annual Women’s Seder, which took place at Sutton Place Synagogue. Courtesy of Sutton Place Synagogue

Eric Thurm, a 25-year-old Brooklynite and writer, has been hosting seders for his contemporaries since his college days.

“The way I approach religious ritual is different,” said the Crown Heights resident and the founder and host of “Drunk TED Talks,” a send-up of the wildly popular technology-entertainment-design lectures posted online; in Thurm’s parody, actors and comics present a slide show about a topic of choice while intoxicated. “I like to allow young people the space to be silly and joyful.”

But at his seder this year, which he will host at the social justice nonprofit Repair the World’s office in Crown Heights, Thurm anticipates that certain discussions will “come up” that are all too serious.

“We speak about all sorts of liberation struggles,” said Thurm. This year, he is certain the growing conversation around sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace, propelled by the #MeToo movement, will come up.

“People will be talking about it,” he said. “Any serious, committed conversation about freedom and what freedom looks like to different people is going to address #MeToo.”

As the national conversation around sexual misconduct in the workplace continues to gain momentum, the next chapter in the women’s liberation story seems to overlap neatly this year with the holiday of freedom. As timely and often hot-button issues continue to make their symbolic way onto our seder plates — from the Cup of Miriam to signify female inclusion, to an orange to represent women’s rights — the national reckoning with sexual harassment is no exception.

As the Passover metaphor of the moment, #MeToo takes its place in the wake of the plight of Syrian (and other) refugees, whose perilous journeys to freedom (and sometimes tragic death) have captured the world’s attention over the last few years; their stories have found powerful echoes at Passover seders in many Jewish homes.

A traditional seder table. This year some are incorporating social activism into their passover rituals. Wikimedia Commons

At the 7th annual Women’s Seder that took place at Sutton Place Synagogue on Manhattan’s East Side last week, the proverbial four sons were replaced with four daughters, each representing an “archetype of how women are perceived and oppressed in the world,” said Shira Dicker, an organizer of the event.

“Any serious, committed conversation about freedom and what freedom looks like to different people is going to address #MeToo.”

The “wise” daughter is tasked with filling the “empty spaces of our holy texts” with the names of women. The “evil” daughter wants to erase her difference, and criticizes her sisters for excluding men. This daughter “so easily forgets the struggles of her mothers and sisters” — nonetheless, she is invited to join. The “simple” daughter does not know she has a place at the table, and the daughter who does not know how to ask is instructed: “You must learn.”

“Everything that has happened over the past few months — #MeToo, #TimesUp — we bring with us to the seder,” said Dicker, who described herself as a “veteran” of social justice seders. She ticked off a list: “Jewish environmental seders, inclusivity seders, alternative sexuality seders. You name it, I’ve done it,” she said.

Still, the impact of the all-women’s get-together — heightened by the current national mood — “knocked me out of the water,” she said. “There was so much power in seeing women clergy lead the ritual,” she said, pointing to Rabbi Rachel Ain, spiritual leader of the hosting synagogue, and Rabbi Lisa Gelber of Congregation Habonim on the Upper West Side. “When women raise our collective voices — in song or in protest — powerful things happen.”

Out in Scottsdale, Ariz., Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz of Uri L’Tzedek, an organization that advances social justice causes in Orthodox circles, will be adding an “empty seder plate” to the ritual objects, “to represent the lacking in effectiveness of the seder throughout the years to succeed at moving this conversation forward and at achieving women’s liberation.”

“As women, we know the work of unearthing hidden stories and calling forth the unseen.”

This year’s seder, he said, will aim to “raise consciousness for #MeToo and end sexual harassment and abuse in the Jewish community and beyond.” An empty seder plate will raise questions about how women are — or are not — engaged in ritual life and communal leadership, he said.

“As women, we know the work of unearthing hidden stories and calling forth the unseen,” wrote Rabbi Gelber to The Jewish Week in an email. “The bitterness of the herb brings memory to life, reminding us of how far we have come. From that place, we move forward with courage and passion and integrity.”

The Four Daughters: The Women’s Seder at Sutton Place Synagogue. Courtesy of Sutton Place Synagogue

In Hollywood, Fla., New York native Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin will be directing the attention at his seder towards #MeToo. The connection between Passover and the grassroots movement “seems clear,” he told The Jewish Week in a phone interview. “In both cases, we are celebrating a liberation from bondage. It is clear that far too many women have been oppressed and that sexist assumptions and gender-based discrimination” existed in the past, and still exist today.

The prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace is a “plague” of “malignant masculinity,” Rabbi Salkin said. And, while Passover is about “God’s liberation of the Jewish people,” he continued, today we have a “communal imperative” to update that understanding, to say “women and men must liberate themselves from previous ‘sacred’ assumptions.”

For young people like Thurm, the key to observing Jewish holidays is an awareness that rituals like the Passover seder need to remain relevant. “I spent four years dead bored at seder tables until finally creating my own Haggadah,” said Thurm, who expects about 30 peers at his seder this year. “I love that the seder, and all the symbols, are the skeleton — you can hang on it whatever you want.”

For example, Thurm, raised Conservative though he no longer “strictly” affiliates, likes to think of the matzah as “the compromises we all have to make in the pursuit of freedom.

“Any kind of struggle for liberation — #MeToo, the global immigration crisis, our current struggle for affordable healthcare — demands the question: When do we take the matzah and run, and when do we hold out for our bread?”

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