Smith Seder and Interview with Becky Silverstein
A Report by Sofia Walker '11
Smith's Jewish community gathered with friends outside the faith this year to celebrate Seder. This week marks Passover, one of the most important Jewish holidays, when the Jews' exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery is remembered. The Seder included dinner, but also readings, ritual hand washing, and traditional foods such as matzoh, bitter herbs (horseradish, representing the bitterness of slavery), and charoset (made of apples, and meant to represent the mortar spread between the stones of the pyramids). Smith's Seder plates were also garnished with an orange, a more recent tradition showing solidarity with the women, gays, lesbians and transsexuals of the Jewish community. I asked Becky Silverstein, the rabbi-in-training who led the Seder, to talk a little bit about her experience.
Office of Religious & Spiritual Life: What is unique about Smith's Jewish community?
Silverstein: Smith's community is small and diverse! There are many different ways to be Jewish, to observe Shabbat, and to participate in Jewish holidays. The Smith community is pushed to consider many more different types of practices than, for example, UMass, which has enough students to hold several parallel programs (for example, several different Shabbat services). Although any given program at Smith will certainly not satisfy the needs of the entire community, those needs must be considered on a daily basis.
ORSL: You recently gave a talk on being queer in communities of faith. Could you tell me a bit about that?
Silverstein: The panel was a conversation between three queer people of faith: myself, Chris Davies (Smith '08 and a M.Div candidate at Andover Newton Theological School), and April LaBelle. We each answered the questions listed here:
1. Share something about the development of both your religious identity and gender identity / sexual orientation. How do you identify? When did these identities become important to you? How do you view the development of either or both as being complete or ongoing?
2. How do these identities support each other? When are these identities in conflict with one another?
3. What are some of the gifts/positives of identifying as LGBTQ within a faith community? 4. Have you struggled with being LGBTQ and a member of a faith community? How did you confront those struggles?
5. How are you working towards making faith communities more LGBTQ inclusive?
A highlight of the panel for me was the connection made between a Smith student, a member of the faculty, and Chris to try and find an open church for the student's family.
ORSL: How does it feel to lead a Seder in a women's community?
Silverstein: The energy and culture created at Smith, and in similar communities, really challenges the leaders to elevate different voices in traditional religious texts. Leading at a women's college demands the raising of women's voices inside religious texts, both alongside of and in place of the traditional, androcentric texts. Similarly, working with a queer community challenges me to lift up queer models within the texts. Two Seder-specific examples:
1. Lifting up the voices of the midwives and Miriam.
2. Incorporating a midrash (biblical interpretation) that attributes the redemption from Egypt to the Hebrew women that is not otherwise included.
ORSL: What should we keep in our minds during Passover?
Silverstein: The Rabbis tell us that each Passover we should consider ourselves as though we have been personally redeemed from Egypt. I want to suggest two ways to actualize this statement:
1. The Hebrew word for Egypt is mitrayim, literally, a narrow place. The Passover journey is one from constriction to expansion. Identify the moments of constriction in your life and make a plan to overcome those.
2. Servitude and slavery are also real parts of modern society. The Passover story forces the Jewish people to confront its own identity as former slaves, and to remember that existence -- the labor, the tears, the joy of freedom. Take time during this Passover season to identify places of modern enslavement, and commit yourself to working towards the elimination of one of these cases.