The Soul Center at Beth El Congregation celebrated its seventh year of operation with its annual Wine, Wit & Wisdom event, this time featuring a guest with a strong connection to the center.
On March 2, Dana Bash, a CNN anchor and news correspondent who has served as a presidential debate moderator, spoke with center founder Rabbi Dana Saroken about their respective spiritual journeys and experiences as Jewish women, as well as Bash’s work reporting on antisemitism.
The connection between Bash and Saroken is a personal one: The two have been friends since they were in college. Saroken relayed a story during the event about how Bash was the first person to know that she had been considering going to rabbinical school.
“You all have known me as a rabbi for many years,” she said, speaking to the audience. “But when Dana [Bash] and I were friends, there was one time when we were sitting in the car, parked outside of the Israeli embassy. I told her I realized I wanted to go to rabbinical school, and she was the first person I’d ever told that.
“She said one word, which was ‘duh,’” Saroken concluded, met by laughter from the audience.
The Soul Center opened on the Beth El campus in 2016. Saroken and a small group of clergy and lay leaders started the center to create Jewish programming that focused on wellbeing and mindfulness.
The Soul Center has been holding Wine, Wit & Wisdom events every year since its founding. The event — previously titled “Women, Wit & Wisdom,” but renamed in 2022 — now serves as the center’s largest fundraising opportunity, with ticket sales and additional donations funding its future programming.
Previous speakers have included Sarah Hurwitz, speechwriter for Barack and Michelle Obama; Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, who officiated Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s funeral; and authors like Rabbi Sherre Hirsch and Bruce Feiler.
“Her spirit aligns with The Soul Center,” Saroken said of why Bash was picked as this year’s speaker. “She is a person who is constantly looking to grow intellectually, spiritually, Jewishly. … She’s also a person who is real and incredibly authentic, who is smart and wise and doesn’t shy away from deep conversations.”
In addition to talking about The Soul Center and how far it has come in the past seven years, Saroken and Bash also talked at length about Bash’s work as a journalist, personal life and her connection to the Jewish community.
Bash recently garnered a great deal of attention for her work on the 2022 CNN special report, “Rising Hate: Antisemitism in America,” which took a deep dive into antisemitic hate crimes and the rise of conspiracy theories in the United States. The subject is close to home for Bash, whose grandparents both fled Europe during the Holocaust to settle in Chicago.
“My grandfather was much more interested in Judaism on an intellectual and academic level [than on a spiritual level]. He loved to learn,” Bash recalled. “My connection to Judaism comes from my family history and the fact that we are a religion, but also a people.”
When asked about her involvement with reporting on antisemitism, she referenced recent threats toward Jewish elected officials in Michigan. On the very day of the Wine, Wit & Wisdom event, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel spoke out about being the target of these threats, according to CNN.
“I feel lucky that I can use my platform to shine a light on antisemitism,” Bash said. “When it comes to threats against religious groups, the number of threats against Jews are exponentially high and they keep rising.
“The bad news is that we could probably update the CNN special report on antisemitism every week,” she added in response to an audience question about her work.
But Bash also made space at the event to talk about Jewish joy, which she believes The Soul Center plays a key role in offering Baltimore’s Jewish community. She also answered audience questions, such as on what her experience as a woman in journalism was like, and who the most interesting and most complicated people she had ever interviewed were (the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis and former Vice President Dick Cheney, respectively).
“It is incredibly important to me to be involved in my community,” Bash said. “There’s nothing more important, and I have the added bonus of being involved in The Soul Center, which is such a meaningful place to [Baltimore’s] Jewish community. It’s exactly what this country needs right now. We need this spirituality and connection with the community. I can’t think of a time in my life we’ve needed it more.”
“In a world where the volume seems to be turned up high too often, I think it feels really special to be able to listen in on a conversation where people are growing together and sharing ideas and lifting each other up,” Saroken said. “My hope is that we all walked away from the night experiencing that and went into the world with a newfound commitment to connecting and conversing with people, and to grow together in ways that feel supportive, encouraging and holy.”