The SVARA Team

Rabbi Benay Lappe (she/her), President & Rosh Yeshiva

Ordained by The Jewish Theological Seminary in 1997, Benay founded SVARA in 2003. An award-winning educator specializing in the application of queer theory to Talmud study, Benay has served on the faculties of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Temple University, The University of Judaism, The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, The Graduate Theological Union’s Center for Jewish Studies at UC-Berkeley, and The Wexner Institute. She also currently serves as Senior Fellow at the Institute for the Next Jewish Future in Chicago. 

Still from An Unrecognizable Jewish Future: A Queer Talmudic Take

Watch Rabbi Lappe’s ELI Talk: “An Unrecognizable Jewish Future: A Queer Talmudic Take.”
Special thanks to Luke Goetting from Puffinston Presentation Design for creating the slides for Rabbi Lappe’s talk.

Benay was named to Jewrotica’s Sexiest Rabbis List of 2013 (and is a little embarrassed about this but also a little bit proud), The Forward’s 2014 List of Most Inspiring Rabbis, is a Joshua Venture Fellow, and in 2016 received the prestigious Covenant Award for innovative Jewish education. She was named to The Forward’s 2018 list of “Sexiest Jewish Intellectuals Alive” (and is both embarrassed again, and also more sheepish about the intellectual part than the sexy part), and was recently named to the 2020 Forward 50 list of most influential American Jews (she was #10, and is grateful that her name starts with a “b” because it was in alphabetical order). While learning and teaching Talmud are her greatest passions, Rabbi Lappe is also a licensed pilot, shoemaker, and patent-holding inventor.

Watch Rabbi Lappe’s ELI Talk or TEDx Talk, or read some of her essays.


Ayana Morse (she/her), Executive Director

Ayana is a community builder and change agent, with over 15 years of experience in non-profit management, Jewish education and community building. Her work focuses on sustainable organizational growth, designing authentic community experiences, and developing meaningful access points to Jewish culture and tradition. Ayana is a national thought leader whose work has been recognized in The Forward, The LA times, the Jewish Journal, Lilith Magazine, and Sh’ma. She teaches about the non-profit sector and Jewish life at conferences and convenings, including The Collaboratory, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, Hebrew Union College, and the National Council for Jewish Women.

 Most recently, Ayana served as the Executive Director of the Silverlake Independent JCC, where she was instrumental in revitalizing Jewish life on the east side of Los Angeles. Under her leadership, SIJCC was named as one of the most innovative Jewish organizations in the 2015, 2016, and 2017 Slingshot Guide. Prior to her work with SIJCC she was the Operations Director for IKAR, an organization that sits at the intersection of spirituality and social justice, where she was part of the team that scaled the organization in its early stage. She holds a BA in education from Prescott College, was a participant in LA Boost’s fellowship for small business owners and was a Leadership Southern CA Fellow through the LA Chamber of Commerce. She lives with her husband, Josh, and their three kids in Northampton, MA.


Laynie Soloman (they/them), Associate Rosh Yeshiva & Director of Transformative Leadership

Laynie is a passionate teacher of Jewish text and thought, and they believe deeply in the power of Talmud study as a healing and liberatory spiritual practice. They love facilitating Jewish learning that uplifts the piously irreverent, queer, and subversive spirit of rabbinic text and theology. Laynie holds a M.A. in Jewish Education from The Jewish Theological Seminary, is a Schusterman Fellow (Cohort 5), and received the Covenant Foundation’s 2020 Pomegranate Prize for Emerging Jewish Educators. Laynie is an Ashkenazi third generation Philadelphian, and when they’re not learning Talmud, you can find Laynie reading about liberation theology, collecting comic books, and singing nigunim.  


Elaina Marshalek (she/her), Director of Programs

Elaina loves to color code her daf (page of Talmud) in full rainbow. She is hungry to help uncover the Torah and wisdom that y’all SVARA-niks carry. Elaina was born, raised, schooled, and still resides in the Bay Area, Ohlone territory. She holds degrees in forestry, probability and an M.S. in engineering from UC Berkeley, and swears they all have to do with Talmud study. She is an alum of Yeshivat Hadar, spends time supporting mass social movement building, and has worked in an array of industries, leading her to tropical forests, salt ponds, and hospital hallways. Most recently, Elaina worked as Director of Strategy for UCSF Health, shepherding the organization through pandemic response and hospital recovery. She is thrilled to dive into full-time mitzvahland with SVARA and to support this rad, vibrant community as it grows and deepens. When she’s not learning Talmud, Elaina loves reading gay YA, playing piano, and working toward that sweet feeling of liberation.


Becca Bernstein (they/them), Development Director

Becca is a queer, non-binary Jew who’s passionate about creating a brave world where folks can live with fullness and ease at the intersections of their identities. Before Svara, Becca served as the Community Director for The Dinner Party, a national community of grieving peers that uses peer-led collective care as a model for meaningful support and growth. In their role at TDP, they learned about both traditional and non-traditional development work, including what it means to share the story of an organization that matters—within the structures of capitalism—with the broader world. Prior to TDP, Becca worked on other issues that isolate us but ultimately have the power to connect us—from gender equity, LGBTQ+ identity, and sexual violence at Swarthmore College, to race and the implications of doing work with high rates of burn-out with the Center for Civic Reflection. In 2020, Becca was named to GO Magazine’s 100 Women We Love. They have a B.A. from Grinnell College in Iowa and their Masters from The University of Maryland, College Park. Outside of work, Becca lives in Chicago with their terrier mix, Pepper, and close to family, both chosen and biological.


James Evans (he/him), Program Operations Manager

James has been a Chicago resident since the fall of 2012 and has been an active SVARA learner since 2016.  He attended Florida State University, where he studied Political Science and French. As an Eagle Scout, his personal motto is “Always be prepared!”  When not working on making sure you have the most AMAZING learning environment, he can often be found with his nose in a sci-fi/fantasy book or cooking a delicious meal with friends.


Amir Starr Weg (he/him), Yeshiva Administrator

Amir moved to Chicago in 2009 after a brief stint hanging out in the Kosher Halal Co-op at Oberlin College. In Summer 2011 he participated in The Adamah Fellowship, a three-month Jewish ecology and leadership program, which nurtured his love of Jewish community, confirmed his interest in Environmental Studies, and gave him a chance to get his hands dirty. In the past few years, Amir has, on and off, worked as an urban farmer, studied Environmental Science at DePaul University, and built Jewish community at Moishe House Rogers Park. Amir has been studying at SVARA since 2013, was SVARA’s 2016 Fellow, and brings insights gained as a SVARA learner to his work.


Ren Finkel (they/them), Mishnah Collective Coordinator

Ren is a multimedia artist, community organizer, and student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. They’re in a long distance relationship with Pittsburgh, where they majored in Photojournalism, first learned about anti-capitalism, and were brought back to Jewish practice. They are deeply committed to healing work and restorative justice.

After a summer at Queer Talmud Camp, studying ancestral Jewish text has become the heart of their spiritual practice. They tend to study Talmud with a 2:1 ratio of respect to irreverence. In their spare time they like to make Sefaria source sheets, specifically about how gay certain Talmudic Rabbis are, specifically Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish—and all they need is one line of Berakhot to prove that Rabbi Gamliel was a twink who believed in disability justice. They are incredibly excited to be working on the Mishna Collective, and hope that the text may provide us with a semblance of sense and solace in such uncertain times.


Deborah Newbrun (she/her), Director of Queer Talmud Camps

Deborah is the founder of Get Set Go Community Adventures. Her career as a preeminent Jewish environmental leader spans 30 years, including serving 25 years as the Director of Camp Tawonga and four years as Hazon’s Director in the Bay Area. Additionally, she has served on the faculty of multiple Jewish learning fellowships. Deborah co-authored Spirit In Nature: Teaching Judaism and Ecology on the Trail. Known for being an engaging and creative leader and infusing deep spirit into her teachings, Deborah is a 2018 recipient of the prestigious Covenant Award for innovative Jewish education.


Rabbi Mónica Gomery (she/her), Teaching Kollel & Talmud Faculty 

Mónica grew up in a Venezuelan Ashkenazi household both in Boston and Caracas and received ordination from the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2017. Mónica is passionate about supporting people who have been denied access to ancient and ancestral spiritual traditions to claim these traditions as a resource for empowerment and transformation in their lives and in the world. She is honored and grateful to get to do this work at the first-ever queer yeshiva in history! Mónica has served as a prison chaplain, a geriatric chaplain, and an educator and prayer leader at numerous other Jewish institutions and organizations, including at Kol Tzedek Synagogue in Philadelphia where she serves as the Music Director. She is the author of two books of poetry, published by YesYes Books and Cooper Dillon Books, and is on the founding leadership team of Let My People Sing! which runs transformative Jewish singing retreats. 


 Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari (he/him), Queer Talmud Camp Faculty

Ari Lev is the Rabbi at Kol Tzedek Synagogue, a Voice for Justice in West Philadelphia. He is a White, queer, trans person, of Ashkenazi and Italian descent. He does not take for granted those who came before him who made it possible for him to be ordained from the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2014. He is most inspired at the intersections of community, activism, and healing. He loves to farm, cook, bike, meditate and parent his kiddos Zeev Lucca and Naim Niso. He considers Talmud study one of his spiritual practices. Ari Lev is deeply committed to the creation and embodiment of Torat Hayyim, a living tradition. This requires that our lives be deeply informed by ancient wisdom and practices and that Jewish tradition learn and grow from our insights and lived experiences. Ari Lev hopes to make the wisdom of the Talmud accessible to all who seek it.