When she started college, Rabbi Dana Saroken thought she would be a doctor. However, as she navigated through college and beyond, she found out that her true calling was with a job in Judaism.
Saroken is a rabbi at Beth El Congregation and leads the Soul Center, which hosts events that incorporate Judaism into programs for physical activity, mental health, Jewish learning and community building.
“We wanted to see if that could animate and excite and inspire people to learn and to grow and to really explore Judaism in an edgier, sophisticated, highly curated and extraordinarily intentional way,” Saroken said on the Soul Center.
Saroken grew up in Westchester, N.Y. Her family was very involved in their synagogue, which sparked her love for Judaism from a young age.
She attended the University of Arizona and received bachelor’s degrees in Jewish studies and political studies.
She had initially thought she would become a dermatologist, and during one of the summers during her college years, she worked as a doctor-patient liaison at a hospital. Ultimately, she felt like that job was not a good fit for her, but she still wanted to find a career path where she could make a difference in people’s lives.
She was more interested in the religion classes she was taking, so she decided to pursue Jewish studies. She also was interested in sociology, psychology and politics, which is why she studied political science as well.
After college, Saroken worked with an organization called Up with People. She traveled with a group of 150 people throughout North America and Europe, putting on shows that showcased social issues, Saroken said.
Then, she returned to her Jewish roots with a job as the director of the Jewish Student Association at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She worked there for about three years with the Office of Campus Ministry, where she planned learning programs and fostered connections in the Jewish community. She loved teaching, pastoral caregiving, wisdom leading and guiding.
“What I loved most about the work were the things that I thought being a rabbi would enable me to do,” Saroken said.
She attended rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. She was ordained in 2004.
She worked at the New City Jewish Center for four years during rabbinical school and then for three years afterward as an assistant rabbi. When it was time for her to commit to a new contract at the New City Jewish Center, she wanted to weigh her options and see if there were other opportunities out there. Someone recommended that she visit Beth El Congregation because of how incredible the late Rabbi Mark Loeb was.
She enjoys the way that she gets to connect with people as a rabbi, like celebrating with them, supporting them through heartbreaks and connecting them to Jewish practices.
Through her work with Beth El, she founded the Soul Center. Beth El clergy and lay leaders had wanted to create an innovative startup, so they met with the Baltimore community to learn how to adapt to their idea of how Judaism impacts their lives. She wanted to draw in younger generations of Jews and learn how to build a space where they could embrace the spirituality of Judaism.
The Soul Center, also known as The Alvin & Lois Lapidus Center for Healing & Spirituality, was established in the summer of 2015, but officially opened its doors to the community in November 2016.
Their four pillars are mindfulness, healing, rejuvenation and growth, and their events center around those values, Saroken said. Their offerings include yoga, meditation and Zentangling, which is meditative doodling.
Each event has a wisdom leader who incorporates Jewish wisdom into the activity in a way that is “going to feel organic and beautiful and sort of illuminating to people’s lives,” Saroken said.
In her free time, Saroken enjoys seeing musical theater shows, participating in water sports, swimming, hiking, skiing and traveling around the world. She loves to do these hobbies with her husband and three kids.
Even though her job does not give her a lot of free time, it is certainly worth it to her.
“I’m in love with the work that I get to do,” Saroken said.