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Rabbi Dana Saroken's Blog

When Jewish women's international called to tell me that I had been chosen as one of this year's ten Women to watch, it took me by surprise. For the simple reason that my work has really been focused on the Baltimore Jewish community and I hadn't realized that national (or international) eyes were on us.

But as it turns out, they are.  And I believe that is because what Beth El is doing is radical and crucial.

With our last big endowment campaign, many of us began to consider the state of Judaism and synagogue life today. We began thinking about what we could invest in that would ensure the viability of Judaism in the decades to come, and what we created, as a response to that question, is the Alvin and Lois Lapidus Center for Healing and Spirituality - otherwise known as the Soul Center, and that should make us ALL proud.    

Many of you are familiar with the Soul Center but for those who are not, it’s a spiritual start up, powered by Judaism focused on mindfulness, healing, rejuvenation and growth – and always with a Jewish twist.  Whether you’re doing Torah & Yoga or jumping into one of our after work meditation sits, or if you’re coming to a healing service or a caregiver cafe or spending Friday afternoons transitioning into shabbat with us at the Braid or at our mixology programs - chances are, you’ll notice immediately, that there’s a warmth, an accessibility, and a depth and soulfulness to what we do.  

Our space was created to feel like “home” - to make you feel comfortable and welcomed - whether you are an insider to Jewish life, or an outsider, whether you’re a member of a synagogue or not, whether you know Hebrew or can’t tell an aleph from a bet.  Everyone that walks through our doors is valued.  To those who haven’t yet visited, come check us out...  We would love to have you!

The truth is, that there is a bigger purpose, something much bigger than any of our programs that is the real experiment:  which is trying to figure out the role that Judaism, God, and the synagogue can play in the lives of 21st-century Jews.

It's pretty easy to keep doing what we've always done. It used to be that people lived by the old adage “If it aint broke don’t fix it”, but how do you know if something  is broken nowadays?  Does that rule still apply in today’s world of constant upgrading, the newer, better, faster gadget quickly replacing the older one that’s working just fine.  With so many things competing for our time and attention, is it alright to just let things be?  To watch attendance decreasing at all religious institutions and to respond by continuing to do what we’ve always done? Synagogues, churches and all religious institutions should be wrestling with this question.  Yes, many people love what we’ve done and what we’re doing, but there are many who aren’t showing up and we have a responsibility to ask ourselves “why” and what might we do to bring Jews closer to their Judaism.

Esther Perel, an international expert on relationships shares a beautiful insight about marital love that I think has relevance and applicability to our relationship with Judaism.  She writes:

  Give me belonging, give me identity, give me continuity, but give me transcendence and mystery and awe all in one.

Give me comfort, give me edge.

Give me novelty, give me familiarity.

Give me predictability, give me surprise.

Esther Perel, Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic  

What we know about our society today is that people are looking for things to be both familiar and novel, comfy but edgy, predictable and surprising.   It’s true in our marriages, in our lives and it’s just as true in our religious lives.  It is also true that in our enlightened age, people are moving away from religion, they are moving away from God, and with so many things to tend to and so little time, religious education in general and Jewish education in particular has become less of a priority.

And so the question is: Does the Jewish world and do we continue to do what we've always done, or do we respond to this new day? It's a big question and it's a legitimate question. Data shows us that the 3/4 of Jews today feel “spiritual but not religious.” And so we need to figure out what that means, how we respond to a community that's more interested in spirituality than religion, how we foster their religious commitments. And to explore what spirituality actually means to people. Are they turning away from religion because they feel like religion is having a questionable impact on the world or are they running TO spirituality because they understand it as a private expression of being in a relationship with God or something bigger than ourselves, as a way to live with gratitude, awe and wonder and to hit the pause button on our crazy busy and oftentimes overflowing lives. 

To some people, the whole endeavor is frightening, it can even feel threatening to those who love synagogue life exactly as it is and who yearn for – ache for – the younger generations to love it as much as they do - as it was and as it is.  So it’s up to us, to make sure that even those in the inner circle of synagogue life understand that the Soul Center and this entire endeavor is not a threat to traditional Jewish life, it is an enhancement of and in addition to our traditional offerings.

In creating the Soul Center, with Rachel (Siegal) and Julie (Hettelman), with Kathy (Shapiro) and Susie (Mann) and Margie (Daniel) and Diana (Terrill) and Lauren (Esakoff), and Dara (Shnee), jane (Goldfarb), Beverly (Penn) and the list goes on and on -  a truly extraordinary group of people by my side every step of the way, we are aspiring to create a Judaism that can thrive in 21st century America, a Judaism that is compelling enough to make time for amidst the chaos of our lives, a Judaism that will enhance people’s connection to themselves, to each other, to the community and to God or something bigger than themselves. And… to bring a compelling and meaningful and applicable Torah to everything that we do so that we are creating  more educated and more inspired Jews that are eager for more.

I am a traditional Jew. I love rituals, I love observing the holidays, I love keeping kosher because it reminds me of my Jewish commitments throughout my every day, I love observing Shabbat, I love walking to and from shul, sharing meals and taking one day of each week to slow down, to stop being productive, to stop worrying about what else needs to get done and to just be.  I especially love disconnecting from the telephone and my computer and enjoying life without multi-tasking, without interruptions.  I actually cannot imagine my life without that 25 hours each week.  What Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described  as an island in time – is an island that I visit each week and I don’t know how I would live life at such a fast and furious pace without it.

So I promise you, this Soul center is not meant to disrupt or undermine any of the traditional aspects of Judaism. But it IS  meant to create a compelling Judaism for the people who don't enjoy sitting in services each week, who don't have the time in their life right now to choose to spend an hour on a weekday evening or Saturday morning studying Torah. It's a way to infuse lives with Judaism, and I can't imagine something more important to experiment with today. And people (Jewish Women’s International and others) are looking to us here, at Beth El, and at the Soul center, to figure this out and to emulate what we’re doing.

What’s interesting to some is that I  have a traditional rabbinate. I spend my days preaching, teaching, counseling, officiating at life cycle events and the list goes on and on.  This may seem novel to many because typically today, we are seeing (especially with  millennials), that when they aren’t finding what they need within, their inclination is to create a “start up”. The interesting part of what WE are doing is we are not leaving what was or what is -  we are trying to create a new approach to our traditional Judaism , to create a culture of joy, imaginination, creativity, and to allow the old and beautiful and the new and exciting to live side by side.   Enhancing and feeding one another. chadesh yameinu ki’kedem - renewing the old to make it feel new again.  

What we all need to understand is that spirituality and religion are not two distinct things. In fact, another central part of this endeavor is an attempt to infuse spirituality with religion and religion with spirituality again.

This isn’t  something new, the Hasidic sect, hundreds of years ago felt this very same need. They felt like Eastern European Judaism was too restrictive, too scripted, they felt it was missing spontaneity and joy and so they created a chasidic approach to Judaism that added that joy and spontaneity.  They actually began arriving early to services to get into the right mindset.  They would go so far as doing cartwheels and headstands before services.  (Now, even we don’t do that), but the idea is that they knew that their people were yearning for something and they knew that there could be mulitple approaches to inspire the Jewish People.

In 1907, a group  of chassidim visited Germany to spend Shabbat with the Rebbe.  The students, after services and kiddish and a few l’chaims mustered up the courage to visit the rebbe.

Rebbe, they said….”what is a chasid?”

The rebbe replied, “A chassid is a lamplighter.  The lamplighter walks the streets carrying a flame at the end of a pole. He knows that the flame is not his. And he goes from lamp to lamp to set them alight.”

His students had questions: “What if the lamp is in a desert?”

“Then one must go and light it,” said the rebbe, and when one lights a lamp in a desert, the desolation of the desert becomes visible.

“What if the lamp is at sea?” asked another student.

“Then one must undress, dive into the sea, and go light the lamp.” Explained the rebbe.

“And this is a chassid?” asked yet another student.

For a long while the rebbe thought. Then he said: “Yes, this is a chassid.”

“But Rebbe, I do not see the lamps!”

The rebbe responded: “That is because you are not a lamplighter.”

But “How does one become a lamplighter?” He asked.

The rebbe answered: “you must start with yourself: cleanse yourself, refine yourself, and then you will see the light within your fellow.”  

What the rebbe knew is that we all need to start within.  To allow ourselves to learn and to grow and to be inspired by our Judaism and our traditions and only then, will we be able to ignite the sparks of others.  

On Monday, many of you will join me in Washington DC to spend the day with Jewish Women’s International.  An organization that works tirelessly as advocates for women in our world.  Ensuring that girls and women are empowered and ensuring their physical and financial security and that they are able to realize the full potential of their personal strength.  People have been asking me if I am excited and the answer is yes.  Not necessarily to be on the stage as much as I am excited to be a part of a gathering of women and men who care about women and women’s issues which are really societal issues.  

You see right now, I believe that we are on the precipice of something HUGE.  Last week, I spoke about the rape of Dina and the importance of recognizing the silence, that Dina had no voice, no response that was recorded in our Torah.  Right now, I believe we are at a tipping point. Why?  I’m not sure:  Is it because we have a president who himself has been accused of engaging in the very same behaviors that are causing the downfalls of Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Lois CK, Al Franken and the list goes on and on and yet, our own president feels untouchable?  Is it because women protested and marched en mass and there was little impact?  Or is it because we still live in a world where women are earning a fraction of what men earn and where women are mysteriously absent from the top echelons of leadership?

This week, I mentioned in a class I was teaching that last week a business woman put in a bid for Harvey Weinstein’s company and with that bid came a proposal for an all women board to run it.   In response to this, a room full of people (with a majority of women even) laughed.  Why is that?  Why is it that no one laughed when Weinstein’s  entire board was male but when we try to imagine an all female board we laugh?  

Right now, I want to be in DC with so many of you and so many others because I want to have that conversation.  Because I know that we are at a national tipping point and I can feel things stirring and change possible.  God created a world that was good, sometimes very good and now it’s up to us to make it better, to make it fairer and to make it more just for all of us.  

And for those women and men who believe that women are just as smart, and just as capable and just as deserving of leadership and compensation as men.  People who care that all of the promises and assurances that we make to Remi and my daughters and yours (and to our sons) that our daughters, just like our sons, can do anything and have the power and the potential to change our world – I want to be a part of that change and i imagine that you do too.  I want to create a world where those words are true: where Remy and my daughters and your daughters and granddaughters are respected in body and mind, a world where women can ask for what they want and what they need without fear, that those with power and influence will stop abusing their power and learn to manage their urges and desires without imposing them on others.  And the time for big conversations, conversations that matter, is now.  Things are stirring.  There’s a momentum.  And WE need to figure out how to use this moment to seize the day and to create that change.  To change our world.  

This week we read the story of Joseph.  And Joseph teaches us that change is always possible.  That people can grow and that people can learn and that we all rise and we all fall together.  So let us rise.  And let us lift up the people and the values that matter most to us - our Judaism, our relationships and our future are calling! So when shabbat is done…  Let’s light our lamps and get to work!  SS

Thu, July 2 2020 10 Tammuz 5780