Bringing Our Guides With Us

by Ayana Morse, Executive Director

a group of svarniks are gathered outdoors in a circle. one person with grey hair is visible in the foreground, wearing pink glittery fairy wings. the group have their arms around each other as they sing together. in the background several people are visible holding havdalah candles.

A number of years ago, I participated in a fellowship that brought together civic, nonprofit, and corporate leaders to explore cross-sector partnership. One of the icebreaker questions that was posed to us at the first gathering was an invitation to share a leader that we looked to for guidance and inspiration. People shared high-profile politicians, CEOs, and the occasional boss or mentor. As one of the last folks to share, I remember feeling in my body that the people I looked to were not the same as the ones the rest of the group offered up. Still, I shared mine—Ina May Gaskin, a foundational figure in modern midwifery, author of Spiritual Midwifery, one of the founders of the commune The Farm, and general, all-around badass. No one in the cohort had ever heard of her before. 

This is a truly unbelievable moment in time that we are navigating. How-are-you’s at the start of conversations and emails continue to feel inauthentic, and naming each acute challenge creates a laundry list that pushes back towards overwhelm. And I’ve been finding myself turning back to that ice-breaker question—Who are we looking to for guidance? Who are we looking to for inspiration and grounding? And what are our answers telling us about the people we’re in community with?

I’ve started asking these questions to folks I’m in community with, both in and outside of SVARA, and I’ve been struck by a few things. 

First is that, initially, people stop and think and then say…”No one.” There is no singular place or person that stands out as a go-to for inspiration, grounding, and sense-making. And then, as the questions settle for a moment it turns out that there are, of course, places and people to turn to. Because in that moment of pause after saying no one, there’s an invitation to sink into seeking. And we are. We’re seeking our people, seeking our teachers, seeking connection. 

In Justice Ain’t Cheap: A Queer Philanthropy Podcast, each episode starts with the host inviting the panelists to bring “their people” into the room. And in sharing their people with each other and with the listeners, the space opens up to be so much bigger. In sharing who their people are, those voices are amplified and refracted out into the world. 

Some number of sessions into that fellowship I was in years ago, one of the folks looped back to me to share that they had looked into Ina May Gaskin and were inspired to learn about her work. It was touching to hear that, to be reminded that even when our leaders, our guideposts, aren’t the same, it’s important to share them. It amplifies their voices and allows others to benefit from their wisdom. Just like the panelists on the podcast, in sharing “our people” with each other, our circles continue to expand.

When we gathered this winter for The Unrecognizable Jewish Future, a conversation series that brought together speakers and teachers across generations, we experienced this amplification too. Our panelists shared their insights and lived experiences about the world we came from, the world we want to see, and the world we’re building together each day. And it was amazing to hear these visions, both of the future and also of how much has changed over the past twenty years. There’s a lot that’s incredibly hard and yet, there’s a lot that’s incredibly hopeful as well. We heard throughout the conversations about the ways in which the work we’re doing at SVARA overlaps with that of so many other incredible organizations and people tending to our tradition. The chats across the series lifted up the ways our work has taken shape, with folks chiming in with thoughts like “Because of the people in this room, my exploring Rabbinical School as a Black Trans Jew is just regular. That idea was unrecognizable to me three years ago” and “It’s because of Svara that I could casually search on the internet “trans mikveh transition rituals” and have an entire ritual from the Halacha project just waiting for me to work with and use for my mikveh experience before top surgery (and now I’m recovered 8 weeks later!).”

In their reflections on learning with SVARA this spring, one person shared, “I am honored to still be taking part in an ongoing conversation that started 2000 years ago…It connects me to the ongoing human struggle for finding meaning in life, and through a uniquely Jewish lens. Learning in chevruta and in a group SVARA-style at its best is centering oneself through truly trying to see/encounter another human being.” 

From SVARA’s beginning, Benay’s vision was to raise up a generation of teachers and leaders whose Torah and wisdom would change the way the tradition is held, encountered, and passed on. Twenty years into the project and it’s incredible how these threads have come together. What was once unrecognizable is starting to be tangible. Our work at SVARA has been, and continues to be, teasing out the wisdom of our queer rabbinic ancestors, holding them up in conversation with ourselves and each other, and bringing in guides from outside the tradition to create something new. It’s through this process of lifting up our guides, our sources of inspiration, that we will continue to shape what isn’t yet known—yet is deeply rooted in the wisdom tradition of our ancestors—into something dazzling and recognizable tomorrow.  

This week, we’re honored to be launching Manifesting the Jewish Future, SVARA’s new strategic plan. It is a celebration of connection, of seeking and sharing, that is grounded in the bet midrash. Following twenty years of lifting up the insights and wisdom of queer and trans Jews, of breaking down barriers between teachers and learners, and centering the power of each one of our individual Torah voices, we’re feeling excited for the voices and insights of the next generation of learners and teachers to join this lineage and fill the bet midrash in the years to come. May we continue to uncover the wisdom and insights inside each of us, and may we be the guides and inspiration that our children’s children need.

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