Writer and speaker Rachel Sharansky Danziger wove together the biblical exodus from Egypt with her family’s contemporary exodus from the former Soviet Union at the inaugural HerTorah event. “HerStory: Making the Exodus Our Own,” was held April 2 at the Gwendolyn Coffield Community Recreation Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. The event attracted 110 women and girls from across both the Greater Washington area and the Jewish denominational spectrum.
“As a Jew, my main interest is in the way we shape our personal stories within the larger national narrative, and the way biblical stories echo and weave through our lives,” Danziger said.
In her introductory remarks, HerTorah Director Aliza Sperling shared the questions that drove the formation of this new monthly women’s learning series.
“What would happen if we brought together women from all over the Greater Washington area: of all ages, perspectives, Jewish knowledge, and observance, and had them all study and talk to each other? What incredible ideas and meaning-making might happen in a setting like that?” she said.
HerTorah is a program of local organization SVIVAH, with support from the Aviv Foundation and in partnership with Yeshivat Maharat. Sperling, a current student in Yeshivat Maharat’s executive ordination program, plans to bring in outstanding female Jewish educators from across the Jewish educational arena to the Greater Washington area.
Participants at the pre-Passover event ranged in age from middle school students to senior citizens. They hailed from Olney, Maryland, to Fairfax, Virginia, and everywhere in between. Some knew little Hebrew, while others speak it fluently. Attendees noticed and appreciated this broad spectrum: “Bringing all these people together — in this place, at this time, for this purpose — is unprecedented,” said attendee Katie Schenk.
Sperling emphasized the intentionality of this diversity.
“Every single person is welcome here, and your ideas are valued,” she said. “I have found that my best learning experiences have often come when I pair up with someone very different from me, who leads me to question my assumptions or leads me to a new way of thinking. I encourage you to go beyond your comfort zone and find a study partner tonight who you don’t know from before.”
Danziger led the evening’s deep-dive into the art of storytelling and the Haggadah’s exhortation to tell the story in first person, as though its events happened to us. Danziger has degrees in history and philosophy, and leads workshops combining Torah study with creative writing.
She introduced the concept of intergenerational storytelling through the dual lens of her professional experience and her parents’ personal exodus — their struggle to free her father, Natan Sharansky, from the gulag, and all of Soviet Jewry from oppression — and the challenge of transmitting this story to future generations.
“On the most basic level, my parents often shared memories and insights from their struggle for freedom at the Seder table. In a sense, they brought their immediate past to our discussion of the distant past and made it feel both closer — and more real and understandable,” she said. Yet when Danziger tried to impart her parents’ story on to her children, “the harder I worked to make the story compelling, the harder it was to make it unique for my children.”
There are multiple ways to tell a story, she explained. “We have the option of telling a compelling, engaging, transporting story that will inspire but then be put on a shelf. Or we could tell a story that challenges, explores... a story that transforms. This is what creators of the Haggadah chose.”
Using source sheets as a starting point, attendees broke into small groups to discuss the “us vs. them” paradigm of transformative vs. transportive storytelling, and how this impacts the telling of the Exodus story at the Seder. Emulating the Haggadah’s transformative style, women wove their personal experiences into these discussions, relating their own Seder memories and life experiences to the foundational texts.
For Danziger, the best way to pass her family’s story on to her children involved her own personal exodus of sorts, she shared: “I needed to let the story go. I needed to let go of my interpretive framework. I had to let them form their own interpretive framework that will be more meaningful to them.”
SVIVAH founder Ariele Mortkowitz said one of the highlights of the evening was seeing all the women around the display of take-home “Seder Swag” (selections of Passover-related lessons and talking points from dozens of female educators) as they discovered what spoke to them and compared their finds.
For information on the next HerTorah gathering, visit svivah.org/happenings.
By Malka Goldberg
Malka Goldberg is managing editor of Kol HaBirah.