Text study, Education
Jim Joseph Foundation, other private donations
SVARA is geared largely toward LGBTQ+ Jews, who compose the majority of participants, but also to any/all Jews who have traditionally been marginalized in Talmud learning. A majority of participants also have chronic illnesses or other disabilities. While participants’ age tilts toward 20–35, the age range is much larger, and intergenerational.
Jewish Knowledge/Engagement Level of Participants
Very diverse, from alef-bet learners to advanced Torah students. SVARA advertises itself as a mixed-level Beit midrash and provides a highly structured learning environment in which participants with diverse levels of experience and knowledge can all participate and be supported.
The goals of SVARA are two-fold but interrelated: First, it aims to provide a safe, supportive, scaffolded, and dynamic Talmud-learning environment for Jews who have typically been marginalized from mainstream Jewish spaces, especially LGBTQ+ Jews. It aims to “use the Talmud as a tool to cultivate a sense of empowerment, liberatory practice and freedom in a community of queer folks.” Secondly, and more broadly, it aims to transform Jewish learning by processing it through a queer lens and to “use the insights of queer folks to make the Talmud better.”
SVARA offers multiple kinds of classes (from alef-bet learning to deeper text study) as well as a teacher training program. However, all of these classes and the teacher training program operate according to a framework called COMP (Culture, Orientation, Method, and Pedagogic Beliefs). The culture is one of joy and rigor, “equal parts reverence and irreverence.”* The orientation is one of empowerment, where rather than asking what a text can mean to a learner, the question is how learning the text can empower people in their own lives. The method is about building reading skills that allow anyone who can decode the aleph-bet to read and translate Talmud. And finally, the pedagogic beliefs at play aim not to impart information, but to model learning; the goal of SVARA’s pedagogy is to collapse the distance and distinctions between teacher and student and undermine the entire concept of expertise. While the classes at SVARA started out largely targeted to people who were newer in their Jewish learning, the past few years have seen more classes targeted toward those with deeper experience because participants have journeyed through their learning and many more of them are now ready to tackle texts in new and deeper ways.