Sober Seders Welcome Jews in Recovery

By Sarah Beller 03/25/13

Sober Passover seders around the world celebrate liberation from the "plague" of addiction.

No wine, plenty to celebrate. Photo via

For Jewish alcoholics and addicts in recovery, the sober seder has emerged as a new way to celebrate Passover—without the traditional cups of wine. Hundreds of recovering addicts are expected to attend sober seders this year, in cities including Miami, Montreal, Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angeles and London, where they can raise glasses of grape juice to celebrate the ancient Jews' escape from Egypt. Rabbi Meir Kessler of the Jewish Recovery Center in Boca Raton has been holding sober seders for seven years. He tells The Fix that the "dry" dinners began when some people in recovery felt uncomfortable with the wine at the table. Traditionally, seder participants are required to drink four cups of wine during the evening, symbolizing the four distinct redemptions promised by God to the Jewish people when they were enslaved. (There is also a fifth cup of wine that is not drunk, because it is reserved for Elijah the Prophet, who is believed to visit each Passover seder that takes place around the world.) But the sober seders evolved to offer a uniquely resonant message to Jews in recovery: Not only do the cups represent the liberation of the Jewish people, says Rabbi Kessler, they also represent the active choice to liberate oneself from the "plague" of addiction. Egypt, says Rabbi Kessler, "was fraught with addiction. The chains of enslavement is something that addicts understand all too well. We all come together at the seder table to free ourselves from bondage, whatever form that may take."

Sharon Carter of Boca Raton, who is 28 years sober, has joined Rabbi Kessler at sober seders for the past six years. She's planning on going again tonight, and anticipates there will be about 150 attendees. "It's a wonderful way to celebrate the holidays, especially at the beginning when you're figuring out how to work the program in the Jewish context," she tells The Fix. "But really, I have found that the 12 steps are embedded in every religion." Asked if there's been any pushback from the religious community against the omission of wine, Rabbi Kessler says emphatically, "No." Rabbi Yisrael Pinson, who runs the Jewish Recovery Center in Detroit, cites the Jewish principle of “pikuach nefesh,” which says that saving a life takes precedence over other religious laws. For recovering addicts, access to alcohol may put them in "danger of death.” And according to Rabbi Yosef Lipsker of Pennsylvania, the reason "people feel such a connection to sober seders is not even really because of the absence of wine. Rather, it's because of the attitude of unconditional love. Feeling at home, being welcomed into a home where they will feel comfortable," he tells us, "that was the turning point for many in their journey to recovery."

Alex, a recovering alcoholic in New York who has been working through his addiction "stuff" with Rabbi Yaakov Bankhalter of Chabad Loft, says he's excited to attend his first sober seder tonight. He sees the merging of passover and recovery as natural. "Passover is very focused on freedom—the Jews leaving Egypt," he tells The Fix, "And when you enter recovery, you enter a new freedom yourself. It's nice to combine the philosophy of 12 Steps, of being free of drugs and alcohol, with the freedom of the slaves from Egypt." To find a sober seder near you, visit Chabad.

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Sarah Beller is a writer and the Executive Director at Filter. She has written about drug policy with a focus on harm reduction for Substance.comThe Fix and Salon. She has worked as a social worker with formerly incarcerated people in New York for a number of years. Her writing has also appeared in McSweeney’sThe HairpinThe ToastReductressThe Rumpus and other publications. You can find Sarah on Linkedin and Twitter.