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 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.

Ellie Spitz (they/them), Operations Director

Best described as an enthusiastic camp counselor, Ellie Spitz is a queer community builder with a passion for creating inclusive space. They are a licensed clinical social worker who believes in deeply interrogating inequities in the system. Prior to coming to SVARA, they spent seven years scaling Mishkan Chicago and nurturing a foundation of community excellence. During that time, Ellie was a recipient of the Samuel A Goldsmith Award for their efforts in the field of Jewish communal service and was named one of Chicago’s 36 under 36 by OyChicago. Ellie is excited to join the SVARA team and oversee the information and financial systems to ensure organizational growth and smooth operations. In their free time, they can be found hosting Shabbat dinner, playing djembe, and cycling.

James Evans (he/him), Admissions & Student Engagement 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), Learning Coordinator

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.

Maggie Kraus (they/them), Communications Director

Maggie was born on the sixth day of Sukkot and has been in love with the fall ever since. They are trained as a landscape architect and spent many years working in the realm of affordable housing and urban / rural planning. Over the last ten years they have managed multimedia campaigns and digital publications for a wide range of nonprofits. Much of this work has focused on community-driven messaging around cultural landscapes and the arts. Maggie is a designer at heart and enjoys thoughtfully constructed objects, places, and stories. Maggie is a Jew by choice and feels immeasurably lucky to live in a queer Jewish communal home in Chicago. Maggie has a sweet and clumsy dog named Forest and spent the better part of a decade traveling the country as a touring folk musician. It’s a tough choice but their favorite deciduous conifer is the Dawn Redwood.

Nat Cohen (they/them), Program Coordinator

Nat took their first SVARA class, Queer Talmud for Beginner’s Mind, in Spring 2022. They were bowled over by the joy they felt studying Talmud in this community, and they’re so excited to support fellow SVARA-niks and keep learning. Nat is a licensed psychotherapist with a background in community psychology. They’re a big believer in mutual aid and spent many years participating in clinic escorting and food distribution projects. Nat loves reading speculative fiction, playing a wide variety of games, and veganizing the Moroccan and Eastern European food they grew up with. Originally from Tongva land (greater Los Angeles), they recently moved so far north that they’re almost in Canada, on Nooksack and Semiahmoo land, aka Bellingham. You can find them meandering through the woods and swimming in the bay.


Olivia Devorah Tucker (they/them), Program Coordinator

Olivia fell in love with Talmud when the local Moishe House asked them to lead a Unicorn themed Shabbat. They couldn’t resist the deep dive into Judaism’s supernatural creatures and have never resurfaced – the books on Jewish myth, magic, and mysticism never make it back to the bookshelf! Olivia sees recovering our ancestral knowledge of angels, demons, dreams interpretation, and the many witchy practices peppered throughout the Talmud, both as exciting gateways to ancient texts and powerful lenses for viewing and healing the world in unconventional ways. 

A lifelong Pittsburgher (Shawnee land), they take part in vibrant theatre and leftist Jewish organizing, play tabletop role-playing games, collect queer sci-fi comic books, and bake challah inspired by the weekly Torah portion (“All Challahs Are Beautiful”). They always have their eye out for a machmir Bechdel-Wallace Test pass, especially when it comes to Talmud. Olivia puts trans in translation and the femme in ephemera. Stay hydrated!

Ren Finkel (they/them), Emergent Programs 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.

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.