Gay yeshiva takes its methods on an unusual cross-country tour

SVARA - a yeshiva for gays and lesbians - is currently on a cross-country road trip for the month of Elul.

The average yeshiva student doesn't ask questions of a rebbe wearing wings and holding a wand, but the self-proclaimed "fairies" at SVARA aren't meant to be your average rebbes, and the students are there specifically because they don't think they fit in at other yeshivas. SVARA — a yeshiva for gays and lesbians currently on a cross-country road trip for the month of Elul — is led by Rabbi Benay Lappe. She is a 1997 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where, she said, "I had to be in the closet because then as now JTS did not accept openly queer people." The wings and wand are worn during workshop sessions as an expression of gay and lesbian identity. Lappe founded the yeshiva in Chicago two years ago with Ellie Knepler, a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. Until that point, Lappe said, Jewish learning programs could be divided into two categories: yeshivas that offered in-depth learning but in which gay and lesbian students "weren't welcomed," and those where gays "were tolerated or welcomed, but where the learning wasn't serious." While gay Jewish groups have proliferated in recent years, SVARA is believed to be the only one promoting Jewish learning. SVARA has expanded beyond Chicago to include joint programming with the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union at the University of California at Berkeley. Its latest innovation is a sort of road show that's taking it to New York City, Chicago and San Francisco for programs that last several days at a time. "SVARA Elul," the first in this series, focuses on issues of teshuvah, or repentance. The first session was held Sept. 18-20 in New York City, where approximately 25 students worked through core texts in preparation for the High Holidays. A subsequent session was held Sept. 25-27 in San Francisco, and another is scheduled Oct. 2 in Chicago. Several other road shows are planned for the coming year. Attendees possess a broad range of experience, religious philosophy and gay and lesbian identity. Unlike Lappe, who remained in the closet during her yeshiva studies, many of the students are at least somewhat "out" — though a fair number remain protective of their identity. Cara Herbitter, a Manhattan native who attended the Orthodox Ramaz school and came out as a lesbian as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, was attending her second set of SVARA classes at the New York session. SVARA is "the first organization that brings together a lot of those parts of my identity," she said. "Coming to SVARA has helped me figure out what's been missing since I left yeshiva," she said, "because I realized that Jewish learning is a really integral part of my spiritual practice that I haven't been engaging." Herbitter, who remains observant, said that "going back to the modern Orthodox community and being a part of it doesn't really feel like an option." Her distance from that community has "to do with the fact that my standards for community have changed," she said. "I'm not interested in worshipping in a synagogue" where traditional gender roles are strictly enforced, she explained. Reuben Zellman came to SVARA from the other end of the denominational spectrum, as a Reform Jew studying to be a rabbi at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. Zellman became involved with SVARA when Lappe was a scholar-in-residence one weekend at Zellman's synagogue in San Francisco, Congregation Shaar Zahav. A third-year student, Zellman said the general Jewish community has "a long distance to go" in welcoming gays and lesbians, "but I have a lot of respect for the efforts the Reform movement has made." "It's obviously way ahead of some other movements, and it really is a pretty friendly environment," he said. To illustrate the unique learning offered at SVARA, Zellman cited his study of Maimonides' laws of repentance. "I've certainly looked at that before, but not in a context that is specifically encouraging me to consider how it applies to queer life," he said. "I think that we're in a time when we really need to reconsider what we consider an 'aveirah,' " or sin, he said, "and there are many perspectives from which we need to do that. The queer perspective is only one of them." Lappe tries to incorporate that perspective into SVARA's learning by relying on a philosophy that is the institution's namesake. SVARA is a rabbinic term that she defined as "an internal ethical impulse informed by Jewish learning." Lappe contrasted SVARA's methodology with more empirical notions of morality, saying that "it's not just what my gut tells me, it has to be informed by a deep understanding of Judaism and its values and principles." That sense of Judaism helps to provide an open environment for gay and lesbian participants, Lappe said. In general in Jewish institutions, "in those places that queer Jews are most welcome, they are merely welcome — they are not recognized as essential in providing insights into life experiences that are crucial to our understanding of the Jewish tradition," she said. SVARA's learning doesn't differ from many more mainstream outlets in the methods used to read Jewish texts, but in the understandings students bring to the texts. "The presentation of the text is really no different — what's different is what happens in shiur, when the students begin to integrate the text themselves," Lappe said. "SVARA recognizes queer Jews as absolutely essential."