Culture, Care, and Our Shared Definitions of SVARA

by Ayana Morse, Executive Director

Laynie stands on one leg in front of a group of learners in the bet midrash. The SVARA-niks are sitting at tables, watching Laynie, and smiling at them.

Back in the fall, I found myself on the sidelines of baseball training for my oldest kiddo. The head coach in the league was attempting to corral a group of energetic 9-11-year-olds into a circle. He was yelling at them to come together, to listen to each other, and work as a group because their individual success relied on that of every player. I remember turning to another parent and marveling at how the language he was using felt familiar. It echoed language often used in framing active listening, collaboration, and team building, but his tone was so aggressive that the message felt entirely different.

The language we use matters. But the intention and emotions behind the language matter even more because they impact the culture of the space and of the group. Although it’s hard to define, culture is something that’s actually tangible, something you can feel. Depending on whether the culture of a space or group resonates with you can make, break, or erode your connection to it. 

Over here at team SVARA, we think about culture quite a bit. It’s the C in “COMP” (culture, orientation, method, pedagogy) which anchors the SVARA method of learning and pedagogic beliefs. It’s embodied in our community norms, which help us ground in how we show up for each other. It’s something our teachers, fairies, and staff model as we move and groove inside and outside the bet midrash.

Of course, it isn’t enough just to think about the culture of a group. Culture is something that needs to be tended to and cared for in order to ensure that it reflects and holds each one of us, as individuals and as a community. And culture, when a project is new and small, is different from culture when that same project grows and scales. Folks who are now long-time faculty members remember when they were learners in the bet midrash, and Benay welcomed people into her own home, keeping them sustained on kale chips and radically inclusive interpretations of their own tradition. When SVARA’s staff was only a few people, we embodied our culture intuitively. There wasn’t a need to spell out the care and commitment to each other and the work that that requires because they were living, breathing pieces that unfolded organically and created the strong foundation that remains at the heart of SVARA today.  

Our culture today is vibrant, caring, and connective, just as it was when we began. During a brainstorm on radical welcoming at a recent team meeting, one of our newer staff members shared that joining SVARA’s team felt like receiving warm hugs from a group of new friends. But how do you codify that feeling as you scale? That’s what we want to be sure we get right as we grow. 

Between the fall and spring semesters, our staff, budget, and number of weekly learners doubled. That’s big! Alongside that growth we have an opportunity to explore how we’re staying true to our culture and how we can more actively tend to it. We have a chance to unpack how each person who works at SVARA understands and embodies the feelings and intentions underneath the ideas of care, authenticity, and love. A chance to uncover where we have shared definitions of our values and where we may need to pull out our organizational Jastrows to get to the roots. 

And we’re hoping that you, our learning community, will be part of this process with us. Culture is not just created by teachers and staff. SVARA is a community, and like any community (any space, for that matter), culture is co-created in a delicious dance between space-holders and community members. If teaching at SVARA is about learning in front of the room, tending to culture is another place where our teachers and staff are doing just that: learning in public, as we co-create the next stages of this yeshiva’s life together. 

When you think of the folks on team SVARA, what values or traits come to mind? What blessings would you share with us as we go on this journey of deepening our culture? Send us an email and we’ll weave your wishes into our conversations over the coming weeks. As our community continues to grow, we want to ensure that our staff embodies our culture fully, so that all of our learners feel what you felt when you first entered our bet midrash: the love, the magic, and the care that make SVARA what it is.

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