While Jewish organizations across the nation are scratching their collective heads trying to come up with social events and tikkun olam projects to engage millennials, a queer Conservative rabbi in Chicago is connecting young people to their heritage through the study of Talmud. A radical concept? You bet. And that’s exactly why Rabbi Benay Lappe says it’s working.
It was not the intention of the founder and rosh yeshiva of SVARA — which boasts the tagline “a traditionally radical yeshiva” — to target 20-somethings and 30-somethings when she started her Talmud study classes. But since SVARA’s launch in 2003, the yeshiva organically has attracted scores of young people through Jewish learning.
It seems the challenge of the program is exactly what many young Jews seek.
“I would say the median age of the students is 26 or 27,” said Lorenzo Davis, 26, who has studied at SVARA since the fall of 2014. “SVARA engages you honestly with your traditions, saying, ‘This is real, this is important, this is worth spending your time on, and it is uniquely Jewish.’”
The learning at SVARA is offered from a “queer perspective,” but Lappe’s definition of queer is much broader than LGBTQA, and about half of the students in her weekly class do not self-identify as queer.
SVARA’s students learn Talmud in the original Hebrew and Aramaic; they are required to know their aleph-bet as a prerequisite, making Talmud accessible to those who are already have some Talmud knowledge and to those who are just beginning.
“It’s just really good stuff,” Lappe said, adding that the idea that SVARA embraces the input of everyone, regardless of their educational or marginalized background, is attractive to young people.
SVARA has educated thousands of students, including 700 so far this year. Those numbers are huge for Talmud study, especially in the non-Orthodox world.
The notion to which Lappe says other institutions are clinging — that young Jews can best be engaged through programs that have little or no Jewish content — appears to be disproved by SVARA’s success.
“There seems to be a lack of trust in the stuff of Judaism,” she explained, “and a lack of faith and confidence in people, that they’re going to like it if given the chance.”
SVARA students are paired up as chavruta — the traditional Talmudic way to study the text — and take apart each word, syllable by syllable, to determine its meaning with the help of dictionaries.
“One way to get confidence [in one’s Judaism], is to take this thing — the most difficult thing in the world, Talmud study — which was once just for insiders, and all of a sudden, allow those not on the inside to do that. It’s very powerful,” Lappe said.
The experience has been powerful for Grace Gleason, who grew up in a “totally secular” environment.
Gleason had a Jewish mother, who died when she was 8 years old, and she was raised by her non-Jewish father. While a student at the University of Chicago, Gleason attended one of Lappe’s CRASH talks, where the rabbi explained the very reason for Talmud study.
“I barely knew what Talmud was,” Gleason recalled. “I didn’t know my aleph-bet. But Rabbi Lappe said all I needed to know was my aleph-bet to come to her class to learn Talmud.”
So, Gleason learned the Hebrew alphabet, and took Lappe’s course. That was a life-changer.
“I’m now a rabbinic intern at the Mishkan Chicago,” she said, adding that she also attended SVARA’s full-time program.
“The assumption is that people don’t want to do something hard or to learn,” she said. “But it is the challenge that makes it so compelling. Judaism is not a thing that can be watered down and still have power.”
Lappe, who received a 2016 Covenant award for innovative education, founded SVARA with a focus on providing serious Talmud study to Jews who felt marginalized because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The program now is attended by a diverse group of Jews, about half of whom identify as heterosexual.
Lappe, who is a lesbian, hid her sexuality for six years so that she could attend the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary at a time when being gay precluded one from being in the rabbinate.
Lappe grew up in a “relatively nonobservant family” that attended an Orthodox synagogue in Skokie, Ill. She liked being Jewish, she said, and enjoyed Hebrew school. But when she came out as a lesbian as an older teenager, she no longer thought that Judaism had much to offer her.
After college, she lived in Japan for about a decade. She decided she wanted to join a monastery and become a Buddhist monk, but before she made the commitment to reject Judaism, she wanted to learn more about it “so I could be a Buddhist in good conscience.” She began to study with a rabbi in Tokyo, who gave her a copy of Pirkei Avot.
That changed everything.
“It was so obviously wise and so accessible and so full of wisdom and easy to grasp,” she said. “I thought,
‘Oh, sh*t. The Jews are as smart as the Buddhists.”
“I gave myself six years,” she continued. “I thought I would go to rabbinical school, and if there is something there, I’ll continue as a Jew.”
While at JTS, Lappe “found Talmud right away. I took to it immediately.”
It was obvious to Lappe that the rabbis of the Talmud were teaching “future readers of this document how to do radical change. That was liberating for me, and I knew it would be for lots of other people.”
To teach Jewish wisdom, one does not have to “focus on content or cover a considerable amount of material,” according to Lappe.
“I’m not interested in that,” she said. “I’m interested in teaching people how to think like Jews, and how to take and receive our tradition and apply their own svara (which she defines as ‘moral intuition’) to it, and make it better.”
Lappe already has formed partnerships with other institutions in Chicago, including Mishkan Chicago, a spiritual community that gathers at different venues, and is looking to do the same with institutions in other cities open to SVARA’s brand of learning.
“People need what shuls offer, but they need it to be better,” she said. “They need to see how smart the Jewish tradition is and have a transformative experience while they’re doing it. That’s what we do.” n
Toby Tabachnick is senior staff writer at The Jewish Chronicle in Pittsburgh.