From the Jim Joseph Foundation

Learning with SVARA: A Series on Insights from Leaders in the Field

October 15th, 2021

As a Foundation that wants to always learn—one of our internal values is Hitlamdoot—we need to hear directly from leaders and practitioners in the field. Particularly at this moment, understanding what these individuals are experiencing, thinking, doing, and planning is integral to building our team’s knowledge base about the many subfields that make up the broader world of Jewish education and engagement.

In this vein, representatives from different grantee-partners are speaking with the Foundation each month in Learning Sessions. While initially we planned for these sessions to be entirely internal, the insights and perspectives we are hearing from grantee-partners will be interesting and informative for others as well. We continue to approach our work with Kavanah, intention, to always elevate the efforts of others who help us pursue our mission. And we look forward to sharing brief recaps of each Learning Session. Read previous recaps on learning sessions with

Daniel Septimus, CEO of SefariaDeborah Meyer, founder and CEO, and Rabbi Tamara Cohen, VP of Program Strategy, Moving Traditions,  Sarah Levin, CEO of JIMENA  Rabbi Benjamin Berger, Vice President of Jewish Education, Hillel International, Mike Wise and Avi Rubel, Co-CEOs of Honeymoon Israel, and Rabba Sara Hurwitz , Co-Founder and President of Maharat

Learning Session Guest: Rabbi Benay Lappe, Founder and Rosh Yeshiva of SVARA

Personal Experiences Inspire a Vision
Rabbi Benay Lappe is the Founder and Rosh Yeshiva of SVARA. Ordained by The Jewish Theological Seminary in 1997, Benay also currently serves as Senior Fellow at the Institute for the Next Jewish Future in Chicago.

Benay began SVARA in 2003 as a small, Chicago-based yeshiva with a dozen students, no operating budget, and no paid staff. It has since grown into a nationally recognized organization with an operating budget of $1.7 million, thirteen faculty and staff, and an international learning community that reached 3,500 in 2019, 7,000 in 2020, and 10,000 in 2021.

SVARA’s work in “changing the weather” on how the Talmud and the Jewish tradition are perceived (“traditionally radical”) significantly contributed to svara, or moral intuition—a 2,000-year-old talmudic source of law equal to Torah itself—being recognized widely both within and beyond the boundaries of the Jewish world. Today, Benay is committed to making sure every Jewish kid learns the word svara, so they know that when a moral conviction arising from their lived experience and informed by their learning speaks to them profoundly, yet may be outside of the boundaries of the Judaism they know, they no longer have just two choices: leave Judaism in order to embrace their truth or stay and deny it. Rather, they will know that they are supposed to bring that insight into the tradition to make it better.

Three Key Ideas Drive SVARA’s Work Today:

            1. “Inclusion” is Over & “Engagement” is the Wrong Goal

“We have to stop talking about ‘inclusion’ and ‘engagement,'” Benay offers. “They are approaches that take as given the current cultural and values contexts, which make sense only if one is happy with the status quo.”

Instead, we need to build spaces that are consciously created and carefully curated, from the ground up, to reflect the culture, values, and commitments of the people we want in the space. Creating it for one demographic (generally, white, cis, straight, able-bodied people)—which will be the default if the creators of it and people “at the front of the room” are members of those categories—while hoping to “include” another (POC’s, queer folk, etc.), will inevitably fail. And, worse, this approach fails to benefit from all that people in those marginalized groups have to offer if given the space to be fully at home. In this next era, many of these spaces will be affinity spaces centering the cultures, values, and life experiences of those formerly on the margins.

SVARA’s first assumption is that, just as in every age of profound societal change, Judaism needs major upgrading. If that’s true, “engagement” is the wrong goal. People will neither come nor stay, in significant numbers, if the “product” isn’t working well for them. And, it’s simply too modest a goal. We have to shoot higher! What we need are more spaces, like SVARA, that are explicitly engaged in the project of inspiring and activating people to become passionate and empowered agents of change in what the Jewish enterprise should look like, in order to make it work better at creating the kinds of human beings that the entire Jewish system is in business to create.

Benay believes that philanthropies should invest much more heavily in these spaces that are dedicated to experimentation and trust deeply in the insights and truths that rise up from the formerly marginalized makers and leaders within them.

          2. The Future is Queer

Benay believes that the U.S. is experiencing the most significant demographic shift in modern history—a shift from a hetero-normative culture to a queer culture. Two studies in 2019 by Ipsos MORI and J Walter Thompson Innovation Group show that 34-52% of Gen Z identify as queer. Mills College reports that 58% of their most recent undergrads identify as queer. In recruitment talks, Columbia College in Chicago brags that 33% of their undergraduates identify as queer.

Benay doesn’t think these numbers correspond to what we used to think of as “the LGBT community.”  Many of the kids who identify as trans or gender non-conforming or using they/them pronouns are different from those of a generation ago. These kids are saying “I don’t believe in gender, period.” These numbers reflect a profound shift in beliefs, values, worldview, and perspectives that young people hold regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And these cultural norms will be non-negotiables for them in the Jewish spaces that they will choose to opt into. Queer normative spaces will be the only spaces they will be willing to occupy.

These kids will not settle for just inclusion. They will only feel comfortable in queer normative spaces.

SVARA started out as a niche project but became mainstream primarily because of this demographic shift. SVARA is committed to raising up this generation of queer and trans people—a generation that increasingly holds intersectional and marginalized identities, and filled with people who “we know will be central not only as consumers of but as the leaders and shapers of the next Jewish future, for everybody.”

          3. A New Jewish Center is Forming

SVARA believes that a new Jewish center is already forming, made up of the spaces, projects, and organizations who are centering folks who had historically found themselves on the margins. This center will be characterized not so much by the forms of Jewish activities going on at the surface (be it Talmud study, singing, meditating, praying, farming, what have you), but rather the “deep structure” of the foundational values, culture, worldview, and commitments of the spaces and the people who occupy them.

The projects and organizations that make up this new Jewish center will likely have all of the following characteristics:

  1. Commitment to Justice & Equity: Approaching their work in a radical, politicized, anti-oppression, non-heteronormative, antiracist, disability justice framework
  2. Liberatory Culture: Holding participants in a serious, rigorous, but also profoundly loving, joyful, and empowering way
  3. Traditionally Radical: Having a good sense of how “Judaism works,” how traditions are constructed, and how they change
  4. Centers & Activates the Margins: Focusing primarily on the people most likely to be the leaders and content-creators/upgraders we need right now, namely those on the margins of the status quo—and able to clearly articulate that vision
  5. Spiritual Practice: Offering a new/better way to “do Jewish,”i.e., a spiritual practice,  along the way
  6. Community: Creating thick community that offers grounding, connection, and meaning

Benay is confident that in the future Judaism will do what it’s always done, only better. It will be a giant set of practices, rituals, holidays, values, principles, and justice commitments that make people more whole human beings.

My dream world is for the folks who Judaism is working the least well for, will roll up their sleeves and create spaces where people start experimenting with new values, practices, and traditions that they will create for all kinds of people.