At the first ever SVARA Teaching Kollel retreat in October 2018, SVARA’s Director of National Learning, Laynie Solomon, announced to the group that “The Talmud will never be the same because we are learning it.” While this statement is true of any person who dives into our rich canon of rabbinic literature, it felt particularly meaningful to me, sitting within a cohort of 8 queer and trans rabbis, alongside 3 of our most trusted queer and trans teachers. “Let’s take a minute to let that sink in,” Laynie suggested. I want to suggest that you do the same. At that gathering I cried, overwhelmed by the power of being in a room and not having to explain myself, grateful of the implicit and deep trust that held us like a thick web, exhausted by the reminder of the weight of living my life in the rest of the world. I wasn’t the only one with tears in my eyes and tear stains on my cheeks.
There is something intimidating about writing about a program that I believe is transforming the landscape of Jewish community and the trajectory of Jewish learning, and has impacted me deeply. Yet here I am. This transformation of Jewish community and the Talmud is, in part, a product of the Teaching Kollel. SVARA’s methodology and pedagogy explicitly places text in conversation with the life experiences of queer and trans Jews, as well as with the lives of other Jews whose presence causes the systems of our community to crash. The Teaching Kollel trains teachers in that methodology and pedagogy. It empowers teachers to create a culture of care for our students, a culture which actively resists the oppression that frequently tells those we teach that they are “less than,” a culture which is unabashedly earnest and supportive of learners of all levels. As an educator, rabbi, and Talmud enthusiast, I deeply appreciate SVARA’s serious approach to learning in a multi-level environment. As a queer person, I deeply appreciate the space for conversations that involve radical politics, a wide range of family structures, sex, and pleasure to intersect with our learning. A SVARA beit midrash is a space where we work hard to not make assumptions about individuals’ lives and experiences, and to acknowledge the implicit biases that make that work difficult.
SVARA is profound in the way that it empowers its students through affirming their identities and seeing their life experience as an asset. The Teaching Kollel is particularly profound in the way that it transmits SVARA’s DNA while also asserting that one need not be a Talmudic scholar to teach Talmud, and in the ways that it lifts up and celebrates queer and trans leadership. The Kollel’s potential to bring more students the SVARA learning they are craving is inspiring.
I worry that you have read to the end of this post and think that I am exaggerating, but I am not. Simply put: this is why I give my time, money, and heart to SVARA over and over again as our Board Chair, as a Teaching Fellow, and as one of our biggest fans.
Rabbi Becky Silverstein (he/him/his) believes in the power of community, Torah, and silliness in transforming the world. Becky is the chair of SVARA's board and a SVARA Teaching Fellow.