Rabbi Benay Lappe - 2016 Award Recipient
Rabbi Benay Lappe, founder of Chicago’s SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, accepted the award from James Crown. At SVARA, Rabbi Lappe has established a learning environment where students represent the full spectrum of Jewish life and diversity. Under her leadership, enrollment at SVARA has risen from eight students in its first year, to 600 students studying in SVARA’s Beit Midrash today. Rabbi Lappe is also Senior Fellow and Director of Education at the Institute for the Next Jewish Future in Chicago, where she oversees the faculty and staff Beit Midrash and participates in its Judaism Unbound podcasts.
“My ultimate dream is to have a SVARA in every city and campus in America. It will be a place where every Jew will discover a Judaism that is smarter and more sophisticated than anything they ever imagined. It will include better pedagogy than their favorite and most challenging graduate courses, a Jewish community around the table as diverse as the world around them, a chevruta who will become their soul-mate, and a teacher who will love them and care deeply that they learn well because it really matters—because they are being handed the keys to the Jewish future and they know it.”
Rabbi Benay Lappe is the Founder and Head of SVARA, a “traditionally radical yeshiva.” As Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Lappe oversees all aspects of SVARA’s administration as well as the training of SVARA’s educators and the teaching of the diverse students SVARA welcomes. Through the creation of SVARA, thousands of Jewish learners who were historically excluded from Talmud study have found their place in and love for Jewish spirituality and practice. It is important to note that Jews from across the spectrum of Jewish life participate in SVARA study sessions. These sessions include a once per week Beit Midrash, a full-time mechina program (for beginning learners), summertime retreats, and sessions that Rabbi Lappe runs across the country. Although the population of learners skews toward millennials, people of all ages participate in these programs. The initial population of SVARA participants was primarily made up of LGBT students. However, Rabbi Lappe’s spreading reputation as a remarkable teacher and leader has drawn in students of mixed ages and backgrounds. She has successfully integrated all of these populations in her various study programs through her naturally inclusive style of teaching.
Rabbi Lappe is also a Senior Fellow and the Director of Education at the Institute for the Next Jewish Future, a position she has held since 2010. At the Institute, she teaches, develops curriculum, and oversees the faculty and staff Beit Midrash. She has also been a Senior Fellow at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership since 1999 (and was the first Spielberg Fellow from 1998-1999). Through CLAL, Rabbi Lappe has led classes around the country, authored articles for both CLAL online and print publications, and supervised the rabbinical internship program. Finally, from 2002-2014, Rabbi Lappe was Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics Department Chair at Hebrew Seminary in Skokie, Illinois.
In addition to these positions, Rabbi Lappe has been a scholar and master educator at seminaries, synagogues, schools, and other Jewish institutions in the U.S. and Israel, including Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, JCC Manhattan, The Curriculum Initiative, the University of Judaism, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Milken Community High School, Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, and the Saul Lieberman Institute for Talmudic Research in Jerusalem. She has delivered TEDx and ELI Talks and was named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis” by The Forward in 2014, the same year SVARA was chosen for SLINGSHOT’s list of most innovative Jewish organizations. She has also published numerous articles and curricula on Jewish text study and Jewish leadership.
Rabbi Lappe received her B.A. in Italian Literature (1981) and an M.A. in Education (1982) from the University of Illinois. She received an additional M.A. in Hebrew Letters from the University of Judaism (1993). She was ordained by The Jewish Theological Seminary in 1997.
From Her Letters of Nomination and Support
“In all my years of rabbinical school, I had never experienced Talmud as Benay taught it. That sense of pride and ownership is what she gives students—so many of whom did not grow up in traditional homes. She turns people who barely know the alef-bet into serious students of Gemara and shows them how the Jewish tradition not only allows, but demands, radical creativity. Rabbi Benay Lappe’s ‘torah’ empowers those who would otherwise see themselves as fully outside of the Jewish community or on its periphery, giving them the inspiration, confidence, and tools to become ‘players’ in a re-imagined Jewish world in which they have central roles.”
Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann
Founder and Rabbi
“Rabbi Benay Lappe is dedicated to opening the doors to the beit midrash, inviting people to the table who can help us grow Judaism into the relevant, meaningful, just tradition it is capable of being. In learning with her and working with her, I have witnessed countless Jews on the margins of their communities gain access to Jewish tradition and experience a greater sense of wholeness as human beings. Rabbi Lappe teaches with integrity. She takes risks. She shows the tradition tremendous kavod and she inspires her students to love and respect the texts.”
Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari
Boston Jewish Education Program
Essex County Correctional Facility
“What is different, compelling, and yet authentic about Rabbi Lappe’s philosophy – which speaks not only to the gay community, but to many others in the Jewish community including those who consider themselves frum – is the idea that the radical, innovative, outsider perspectives that define the queer experience are in fact in profound alignment with the perspective of the Rabbis, themselves innovative outsiders plumbing tradition for meaning. Rabbi Lappe does not shrink from the tradition or remake it in her image; she responds to the radical inventiveness of the Rabbis and helps her students to gain the critical thinking and linguistic skills to become part of the chain of interpretation.”
Co-founder and Executive Director
Full Circle Communities
“Rabbi Lappe routinely empowers the disenfranchised, inviting the timid and the bold alike to own Jewish tradition. She is a teacher on a mission. Not a guru, not a cult figure, and always modest and self-effacing, she teaches solid scholarship and brings with it a contagious delight in learning and a recognition of its importance not only for the lives of her individual students but for the future of Judaism itself. Thanks to Rabbi Lappe, many hundreds of Jews who were formerly marginalized from the Jewish tradition are now actively engaged in learning it, interpreting it, and transmitting it.”
Rabbi Lisa Edwards
Beth Chayim Chadashim