by Sue Tomchin
A few years ago, when Rabbi Dana Saroken read the findings of a Pew Research study on Jewish identity and the results showing that more American Jews considered themselves spiritual than religious, she felt compelled to try to figure out what was happening.
She began asking big questions: If so many Jews consider themselves to be more spiritual than religious, how they do they foster their sense of spirituality? What resources are synagogues and other Jewish institutions currently providing? How can the organized Jewish community, and synagogues, in particular, provide tools, resources, spiritual inspiration and learning to the vast majority of liberal Jews not currently finding religious life compelling?
Saroken, 46, a rabbi at Beth El, a Conservative congregation in suburban Baltimore, engaged in hundreds of conversations seeking answers to these questions. That process led to the creation, in November 2016 of The Alvin & Lois Lapidus Center for Healing & Spirituality, a.k.a. The Soul Center.
The Soul Center is a part of Beth El and also its own entity. Saroken and her core team made deliberate choices about the atmosphere they wanted to create. “Synagogues are often big and can make people feel small. We worked with a residential design team because we wanted the center to feel like a home. It’s so beautiful and peaceful that people will enter, pause, exhale and oftentimes ask if they have to leave after attending a program.”
That response still makes Saroken and her team smile. “There is something that feels magical about it. Every detail was deliberately tended to in order to give people a space where they can just be instead of feeling overwhelmed in our crazy-busy, loud and hectic world.”
One enters the Soul Center through a separate door, rather than through the synagogue, and everyone who comes in is greeted personally. “You don’t need to get buzzed in or walk down long corridors,” Saroken says. “That was important because people want easy access and our external door conveys the message that everyone is welcome and they are.”
The intent of the Soul Center is “to help people grow as human beings and as Jews, to strengthen people’s connection to themselves, G-d, and the Jewish people, and to provide Jewish inspiration and learning in creative and compelling ways,” Saroken says.
Programs are inspired by four pillars – mindfulness, growth, healing and rejuvenation. There are weekly Torah & yoga sessions and renewal walks led by one of the synagogue’s rabbis; monthly mixology tisches (tables) where adults unwind at the start of Shabbat with tips on mixing craft cocktails with shots of Torah in between; and cooking class dinner parties with guest chefs, where intriguing dishes mingle with servings of Jewish wisdom about character. Starting this fall, “The Braid,” a monthly challah make-and-take on Friday, will give parents and teens together time and a taste of Pirke Avot, the wisdom of our sages.
Before Rosh Hashanah, the Soul Center holds a special selichot service on a hilltop. “In the dark of the night, around a fire with hot chocolate and s’mores and drums in hand, we’ll gather and go deep into the work of transformation,” she says.
"Having the opportunity to work to creatively attract and grow Jewish souls with an amazing group of people – what could be more meaningful than that?"
Healing programs at the center include services where people suffering from illnesses or struggling with loss come to share, pray and learn, and caregiver cafés that provide support and guidance.
“As a rabbi at a synagogue with over 1,700 families,” Saroken says, “I am often aware of gaps in our greater community and see, firsthand, where people are trying to endure difficult things on their own.
Growing up in Bedford Hills, N.Y., Saroken's mother taught her “how to engage with people and be inquisitive,” while her father taught her “how to show up for people reliably and wholeheartedly in their moments of need.” From childhood on, she approached life with verve and openness and was passionate about musical theater, dance, traveling and serving others.
She studied in London during high school and in Israel during college and after graduation traveled around the world working as educational director for the musical and community service group “Up with People.” Later, working as Jewish Student Association director at Georgetown University awakened her desire to become a rabbi. She studied at yeshivot in Jerusalem and attended the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York for rabbinical school.
“I love what I do,” Saroken says. “Being a rabbi in all of the traditional ways and then having the opportunity to work to creatively attract and grow Jewish souls with an amazing group of people – what could be more meaningful than that?”
She has a son, 13, and two daughters, 11 and 9, and describes her husband Rafi Rone, who serves as program director for the Weinberg Foundation, as an “incredible partner, person and husband,” who shares her commitment to the Jewish people.
“People are struggling to find a sense of centeredness in a world that can feel overwhelming,” Saroken says. “Judaism can give us the tools for balancing our lives and the guidance, wisdom and moral compass to navigate our complicated world. It can change lives. It changed mine.”