Team SVARA

There are so many incredible folks behind the bet midrash! Get to know more about our staff and faculty below.

Alyx, palms outstretched, reads from a page of Talmud.
Communications and Development Intern
Alyx Bernstein, born and raised in London (and a proud adopted New Yorker), is a student studying Comparative Literature at Barnard College and Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which means that her living space is more of a library…
Learning Coordinator
Amir Weg 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…
Faculty
Ari Lev Fornari 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…
Executive Director
Ayana Morse 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…
Faculty
Rabbi Becky Silverstein believes in the power of community, Torah, and silliness in transforming the world. He strives to build a Jewish community and world that encourages and allows everyone to live a life that reflects their inherent divinity / dignity. Becky…
President and Rosh Yeshiva
Ordained by The Jewish Theological Seminary in 1997, Benay Lappe 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…
Director of Queer Talmud Camps
Deborah Newbrun 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.…
Director of Programs
Elaina Marshalek 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.…
Faculty
Rabbi Bronwen Mullin (ord. 2017, MA Midrash JTS, BA in Theater and Religious Studies, Sarah Lawrence College) is the rabbi of Carov, an independent mishkan with a mission in Jersey City, and was the first-ever appointed Rabbinic Artist-in-Residence of the Jewish Theological…

Ellie Spitz

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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…
Admissions & Student Engagement Manager
James Evans 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…
Jess is outside and looks at the camera. They have short hair, glasses, and a dark blue shirt. There are a few trees and shrubs in the background of the image.

Jess Belasco

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Director of Disability Justice Torah Circle and SVARA Rabbinic Intern
Jess Belasco is a radical torah teacher, organizer, and community convener primarily focused on disabled and queer Jewish communities. They are very nearly finished with rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where they are focusing on midrash and pastoral care, and…
Faculty
Elliot Kukla is a rabbi, chaplain, author, artist, and activist. His writing appears in many places including The Forward, The Body is Not an Apology, and regularly in The New York Times and Sunday Review. He was the first openly transgender rabbi ordained by a denomination in Judaism,…

Julie Batz

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Faculty
Julie Batz is passionate about delving into Judaism’s texts and traditions in accessible and meaningful ways with all who are curious to explore! This has been the throughline of her more than two decades of work as a Jewish educator, congregational leader,…
Associate Rosh Yeshiva & Director of Transformative Leadership
Laynie Soloman 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…

Maggie Kraus

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Communications Director
Maggie Kraus 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…
Faculty
Mónica Gomery grew up in a Venezuelan Ashkenazi household both in Boston and Caracas, and now lives on Lenni Lenape land in Philadelphia. She received ordination from the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2017. Mónica is passionate about supporting people who…
Nat is smiling and looking at the camera. They are wearing an orange plaid shirt and brown glasses.

Nat Cohen

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Program Coordinator
Nat Cohen took their first SVARA class, Queer Talmud for Beginner’s Mind, in the spring of 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.…
Program Coordinator
Olivia Devorah Tucker 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,…

Ren Finkel

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Emergent Programs Coordinator
Ren Finkel 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…