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 hundreds of 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 specifically 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.
“We had no interest in attracting millennials,” admitted Lappe. “I couldn’t care less about the ages of the people who came to SVARA. We never tried to attract young people.”
Yet it seems the rigor and challenge of the program are 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. “I feel like a big part of its draw is that it is engaging, but it’s authentically engaging. 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 identify sexually as queer.
SVARA is remarkable for a host of reasons, but perhaps one of the most astonishing is that its students learn Talmud in its original Hebrew and Aramaic, and are only required to know their aleph-bet as a prerequisite, making Talmud accessible both to those who are already learned as well as to those who are just beginning.
Although she never sought out millennials, Lappe has a theory as to why they are flocking to her weekly classes, her one night “pop-up” bet midrashes, SVARA’s five-day Queer Talmud Camps, and to the full-time program in which students are trained to be future rosh yeshivas.
“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.
Since its founding 13 years ago, 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 was raised by her non-Jewish father. While she was a student at the University of Chicago, Gleason attended one of Lappe’s CRASH talks, where the rabbi explains 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 her aleph-bet, took Lappe’s courses, and consequently changed her life.
“I’m now a rabbinic intern at the Mishkan Chicago,” she said, adding that she also attended SVARA’s full-time rosh yeshiva training program.
Gleason speculated as to why other Jewish organizations are not focusing on Jewish study to engage young people.
“I think there is an assumption that people don’t want to do something hard,” Gleason said. “If people are not even willing to go to a party [hosted by a Jewish organization], why would they want to spend hours deciphering the Talmud?”
But Lappe’s approach — which offers answers as to why Talmud study is important, and avoids aggressive recruitment — is a more effective way to get the young involved, according to Gleason.
“SVARA shows me that people want to learn and want to be challenged,” Gleason said. “The assumption is that people don’t want to do something hard or to learn. 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 50 percent who 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. But getting her Jewish education was important enough for her to make that sacrifice, she said.
Lappe grew up in a “relatively non-observant 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.
Following college, she lived in Japan for about a decade, and eventually became “a pretty devoted Buddhist.” She decided she wanted to join a monastery and become a Buddhist monk, but before she made the commitment to reject her 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. The fact that you could do it very slowly made it easy for me, and the rabbis thought the way I thought. I saw things in it that my classmates weren’t seeing.”
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.”
Lappe plays with the term “queer,” and uses it to describe a vast array of people coming from varied backgrounds. She even uses the term to describe the rabbis of the Talmud, who she sees as “radical innovators.”
“I play with that term for people who feel disempowered, but are ripe for leadership,” she said.
To teach Jewish wisdom, according to Lappe, one does not have to “focus on content or cover a considerable amount of material.”
“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 partnered with other institutions in Chicago, including Mishkan Chicago, a spiritual community that gathers at different venues, and is looking to partner 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.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.