TC Queer Jews Piloting Mussar Learning Group

J-Pride, the Jewish Twin Cities LGBTQ+ organization, is piloting a queer-only va’ad, or study group, to engage with Jewish Mussar teachings in partnership with Twin Cities Mussar and Temple Israel. (J-Pride is a program of the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis, supported by the Minneapolis Jewish Federation.)

Twelve participants will meet every other week for 12 sessions, which are planned to be in-person. The Queer Mussar program starts in September, with the specific starting date not being publicized to protect participants’ security.

Mussar is a Jewish framework for cultivating middot (plural of middah, meaning values or characteristics) in order to live ethically. Middot range from traits like gratitude and compassion, to trust and anger.

Participants “will form a deeper connection with their own inner life, deeper connection with the other people in the group, and probably a deeper connection with some of the teachings in Judaism that support us in this personal transformation for a better world,” said Julie Dean, founder and director of Twin Cities Mussar.

Outside of the formal sessions, va’ad participants will practice mindfulness at home by having a daily phrase, an action that’s connected to a middah, and journaling. They will also be partnered up with a chevruta, or learning partner, to be able to learn at their own pace in a collaborative environment (Jewish learning is traditionally done with a chevruta).

Dean has been running Mussar programming in the Twin Cities for the past eight years, including with J-Pride. But this is the first time J-Pride will have a longer-term study group program, with the idea growing out of a conversation earlier this year between Dean and Isaac Jennings, the program coordinator for J-Pride.

Dean asked, “‘What about J-Pride doing a Mussar va’ad this year?’ And [Jennings] said, ‘Yes, that would be great,’” she said.

Jennings and Dean are facilitating the J-Pride va’ad together with Lisa Hurtubise, a Mussar facilitator, and Rabbi Jason Klein, a rabbi at Temple Israel and a former president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, where he was the first openly gay man to lead a rabbinical association in the U.S.

“The four of us came together to really design this program, to invite people in the queer community to be part of a Mussar va’ad that was specifically designed as an exclusively queer Jewish space in which to practice Mussar,” Dean said.

And why is the va’ad exclusively for queer Jews? A blurb from Jennings on the website for Queer Mussar explains that the exclusivity is to best serve queer Jews as people at the intersection of two communities that don’t always fit together easily.

“Queer Jewish spaces allow for queer Jews to exist holistically in their compete selves in a way that traditional Jewish spaces don’t always allow,” Jennings wrote. “Queer spaces are not always religion friendly and religious spaces are not always queer friendly. Queer Mussar invites us to participate with our whole selves in a supportive, authentic, and inherently queer environment.

“I think that there is something specifically holy about getting to study and experience exclusively queer Jewish space in community spaces. There is something beautiful that happens when queer folks come together to dig into and dig out our own space in history. It is finding ourselves in old things that are sacred and significant.”