When Rabbi Benay Lappe came out, as a teen in the mid ‘70’s, she knew two things: “One, that they put people like me in jail, and two, that who I was was against God and Torah.” Ten years later, she was sitting on the subway and read that the Supreme Court had finally overturned our nation’s sodomy laws. She knew that the case had been brought by a gay legal advocacy organization. “The world had just changed because queer people went to law school.” She knew at that moment that “the Jewish world wasn’t going to change until queer people went to yeshiva.”
It was then that Rabbi Lappe decided to start SVARA. She knew that if we put our most sacred texts in the hands of LGBTQ people, we would change the course of Jewish history. That we would start telling a new story, one that would disrupt not only our tradition’s notions about gender and sexuality, but also about power, privilege, and so much more–including who owns the tradition itself.
SVARA teaches Talmud, and only Talmud. But it has become a lot more than just a yeshiva. It’s also a think tank and a laboratory for a radical new way of approaching the tradition. “People often ask us: ‘Are you a gay thing, or are you not a gay thing?’ I say, ‘We’re neither. We’re a queer thing.’ What we mean by that is, at SVARA we take the experience of marginality and the insights and critique that grow out of it—the very experience the Talmud is recording which Jews have largely forgotten but that queer people have masterfully learned to negotiate—and bring that to the center, for the benefit of everyone,” Rabbi Lappe explains. And they’re attracting hundreds of people, mostly under age 35, because they’ve created a space where everyone–gay or straight–can embody their “queerness”–their “otherness”–whether that comes from their gender identity, sexual orientation, their politics, their Hebrew literacy, or just their overwhelming sense that they don’t fit into the mainstream.
SVARA is an UpStart Accelerator organization, and so we asked Rabbi Lappe a typically “UpStart” question. How can Jewish communities design themselves to better meet the needs of LGBTQ people? She noted “I think our community does a disservice to itself and to queer people by holding up being ‘welcoming’ as our ideal. ‘Gay Inclusion’ in mainstream Jewish institutions is an approach that is essentially saying ‘We’re going to hold onto our heteronormative assumptions, worldview, and values, but we’ll ‘let you in’. More than being insulting and discriminatory, it’s a tragically missed opportunity. Queer people have unique and critical insights about the world and it behooves us, as a Jewish community, to hear and integrate them. These essential insights may be disruptive, but they’re indispensable to a Jewish community wrestling with how to survive and thrive in the 21st century.”
SVARA is in the UpStart Accelerator in Chicago. Rabbi Lappe was recently named a recipient of the Covenant Award for Excellence in Education.
Read a reflection from A Wider Bridge’s Arthur Slepian.
Read a reflection from JQ International’s Anna Goodman.