When was the last time you sat in silence, calming your mind, for even one minute? How about five or 10? Given the hectic nature of modern-day life, it’s not often we have the time to simply be still.
But the Alvin & Lois Lapidus Center for Healing and Spirituality, also known as the Soul Center at Beth El Congregation, affords just this kind of opportunity to local Jews. Since its founding by Rabbi Dana Saroken in 2016, the center has been helping people to feel more grounded, more at peace and more connected to their Judaism. Their tagline reads: “Where mindfulness, healing, rejuvenation and growth happen, all with a Jewish twist.”
The center offers yoga, meditation and mussar classes, monthly healing services and a caregiver café, challah braiding, book talks, cocktails with Torah, spiritual sessions and talks on topics such as embracing imperfection and wise aging. The signature Wine, Women and Wisdom event draws hundreds. In addition, the center offers a mikvah for people seeking ritual ceremony to mark significant events in their lives.
Located on the Beth El campus between its sanctuary and school, The Soul Center has its own entrance, distinguished by a logo of interlocking circles. Somehow, even that logo feels welcoming as you enter The Soul Center environs, stepping into a relaxed, calming atmosphere splashed with muted grays and blues, dark hardwood floors, plush sofas and warm lighting.
The effect, said Soul Center Managing Director Rachel Siegal, is to make visitors instantly feel relaxed and connected. And it works. Take one step into what feels like a large living room, and you’ll have an immediate sense of calm and hominess, bolstered by a warm staff welcome and the offer of a hot beverage from a nearby cozy kitchenette.
“People burst in the door, they go, ‘Ahhh,’ and they don’t want to leave,” Siegal said. “When you walk through this door, there’s no expectation, except what gift is my heritage going to give me today? The magic of this place is people want to have a personal connection with a spiritual leader. It sometimes can be hard in a larger congregational setting to feel like you have a personal connection. And so this space offers that. We want it to feel intimate, and to do it in a Jewish context is kind of novel.”
For founder and spiritual director Rabbi Dana Saroken, The Soul Center is a dream come true. Not just because her vision and mission “to bring a soulful Judaism to Baltimore, to the Jewish community and to the Jewish people” was realized when the center opened in 2016, but because the mission has been so successful.
Close to 5,500 people have participated in more than 320 programs since The Soul Center opened its doors, with participation doubling each year. About 60 percent of center participants are Beth El members, while programs also pull in non-members and unaffiliated Jews from the wider community.
‘Space to rest’
The center offers a unique space, Saroken said, that attracts a wide range of people looking for new ways to engage with their Judaism and community.
“It’s for people that feel spiritual but not religious, or who feel religious but are looking for more meaning or relevance or inspiration in their Jewish practice,” Saroken said. “And also to further their journey and their aspiration of Judaism. We infuse Judaism into those things that they already feel are worthy of time and attention.”
For example, Saroken said people are looking for new mindfulness practices, “understanding that in our busy, frenetic, loud world, our souls yearn for a little bit of downtime. Our minds need space to rest or to pause.”
“So we’re providing meditation classes in a Jewish framework … and we have incorporated Torah into the yoga practice,” she said.
The Soul Center offers a host of programs based on the center’s four pillars: mindfulness, healing, rejuvenation and growth.
“Every program here has a Jewish twist, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on what the program is,” Siegal said. “At The Braid on Thursday nights, just the act of making challah is a very Jewish experience. There is a term — embodied Judaism — learning with your body as you’re learning with your mind. The mikvah is the purest example of that, where you’re doing something with your body but you’re learning it in your mind and your soul at the same time.”
Beth El’s mikvah underwent a renovation and now includes a gathering area/ritual space for people who want to include others in their ceremony. Saroken said the ritual bath is in high demand from those wanting to mark important events and transitions, from weddings and conversions to emerging from difficult challenges such as cancer treatment or divorce.
“We say that the waters go back to the Garden of Eden. And that the water sort of holds you like a womb,” Saroken said. “So it’s a beautiful thing to be able to bring yourself down into those waters, to feel held by God and to recognize the potential for change and growth and a new beginning — that process of emerging again.”
The center has a dozen mikvah guides from many walks of life to help people develop the ritual that best fits their needs.
Mindfulness programs, in addition to yoga and meditation, include yoga hikes and a “guided doodling” meditation program called Zentangling.
Beth El spiritual leader Rabbi Steven Schwartz has enjoyed working with center programs, including pre-High Holiday hikes and teaching Torah at yoga classes. Last summer he facilitated a series on how music frames life events. He has also been guest bartender at Friday-night Torah and cocktail hour.
“The Soul Center provides access points to Jewish life that people might not have otherwise. If someone is not a synagogue goer, if they are not interested in traditional services, they might come to Beth El and a Soul Center meditation program or art program, and when they do, they’ve connected with the Jewish community and with a synagogue,” he said.
He hopes center participants discover they can access their Judaism in many ways — “not just through the more traditional structures of synagogue and home observance. Also, that they can find meaning in the tradition and realize Judaism has a lot to say about contemporary issues, that the wisdom of the tradition is both deep and wide, so to speak.”
Yoga instructor Nila Mechali Berger has been teaching at the center for about six months. The summer and winter solstice yoga programs include an introduction to both the yogic meaning of the solstice and its significance in the Jewish calendar, explained by Rabbi Benjamin Shalva.
“We work through 108 Sun Salutations to ‘salute’ both the season before and the season to come. During the hour-long flow, I speak to the seven chakras (energy centers) of the body and to the sephirot (attributes of Kabbalah), combining both yoga and Judaica in a soul-enriching safe space,” Berger said. “People walk off of their mats feeling changed, feeling more connected to their true authentic selves, feeling more grounded and certainly more present and aware.
“Jewish philosophy teaches us that beauty and splendor come from acting in authenticity. Yoga teaches us that at our core we are love and we are truth. Combining the two creates space for us to be the best versions of truest ourselves.”
Shalva has been teaching at The Soul Center for a year and a half, including workshops in mindfulness meditation and Kabbalistic meditation. He also offers Torah-based teachings during Zentangling workshops and the yoga classes.
“All of my classes and workshops combine the wisdom of East and West. They are all inspired and informed by Eastern spiritual traditions, such as yoga and Buddhist meditation, but I’ve woven this Eastern wisdom with Jewish mystical teachings, texts and practices, such as Kabbalah,” Shalva said. “So, for example, one of my meditation sessions at the Soul Center might begin with a Zen-inspired breathing meditation followed by a Kabbalistic guided meditation.”
“Participants come to the Soul Center looking for relaxation, connection, and spiritual rejuvenation. They want to find some peace of mind within a familiar, comforting, Jewish framework,” he added. “They want to search for meaning with other Jews — but not within a traditional, sanctuary setting and not laden with a traditional, text-heavy prayer book. So we offer participants an opportunity to catch their breath and connect with one another in a safe, non-judgmental, soulful space.”
Kathy Shapiro and Sarah Reading facilitate the Zentangling sessions, where Shalva also infuses each session with a Torah text discussion before the guided drawing begins.
“We reflect on gratitude and being in the moment from a Jewish perspective differently each week,” Shapiro said. “We call it Torah tangles.”
The guided-doodling meditation involves drawing patterns with fine markers in small formats that keep the mind busy and engaged, while at he same time, Shapiro said, “the work emerges way more beautiful than I could have pictured. By not worrying about what it’s going to look like, you’re on a journey of the experiencing of it. It really has a Zen-like quality.”
‘It always seems to hit the spot’
On a recent Wednesday evening, a handful of people joined Cantor Melanie Blatt and center Programming Coordinator Julie Hettleman for a half-hour of meditation. Using gentle instructions and soothing tones on her acoustic guitar, Blatt guided the group through a period of sensory relaxation followed by humming and silent meditation that left participants feeling soothed and renewed.
Blatt said meditation can help people by “strengthening the space of silence” within themselves to form a protective barrier between a stressful event and how they respond to it.
One meditation participant, a breast cancer survivor, said after the program that she had never been able to do meditation regularly.
“And all of a sudden God creates this Soul Center, which is around the corner from me. It always seems to hit the spot when I come,” she said. “There is something about the sense of community. It’s very special, the entire setting. And it does make a difference in your life, because we’re all busy.”
Soul Center healing programs include a monthly Healing Service, led by Saroken, and a psychological support program with the center’s social worker, Sarah Shapiro, who also facilitates the monthly Caregiver Café. The café offers support in dealing with aging parents, ill loved ones and other similar challenges with a themed presentation followed by an open discussion.
Last month, 10 women and men gathered to listen to a doctor talk about how caregivers can make the best out of a doctor’s visit with the person they are caring for.
After the program, Susie (not her real name) from Pikesville said that she has been participating in Caregiver Café for 14 months and looks forward to her “me” time.
“I am dealing with elderly parents who have memory issues. The main challenge I am facing is that I am now their parent … in charge of every aspect of their daily lives. I do everything I can to continue to give them a happy life,” she said. “When I walk into the Caregiver Café, I feel a sense of calmness. It is a safe place to discuss fears and challenges. Everyone is about helping the caregiver. There is no judgment here.”
Marion (not her real name), also from Pikesville, has been going to the Caregiver Café about a year for support in caring for a husband with a long-term illness.
“He needed me by his side 24/7, which was taking a toll on me. Just walking into the Soul Center gives you a peaceful feeling,” she said. “The program gives me one and a half hours away from being the caregiver. I can cry or vent and know that it will never leave the room. Everyone attending shares their situation and we can have some input for each other.”
Likewise, at the center’s monthly Healing Service, Saroken said miracles happen when people are able to unburden themselves of their fears and worries in a safe, supportive environment.
“We hear Torah and we talk about where we connect with it. We share a song, we share a prayer, we share where we are in our journeys,” Saroken said. “So when they leave, they lift each other up. It’s the magic that somehow, everyone puts their pain and their suffering and their fears and their sleeplessness, their worries and everything else into the circle. And the miracle is that when people leave, they don’t leave feeling more burdened. They leave feeling lighter and happier and inspired and more hopeful. It’s amazing.”
Center volunteer Monica Bernstein found herself involved in center programs as a participant and relishes the space for its offerings to people in the “sandwich generation” who are caring for children and aging parents simultaneously.
“Because there is this gap in the natural progression of how one might be involved in Jewish community in this sort of sandwich part of your life, it was very important for me to role model for my teenagers to continue Jewish communal involvement — not with them anymore — but just for me,” she said. “You want to raise [children] who remember to nurture their body, mind and spirit. So that’s been a really important, unexpected bonus. And not just the modeling of it, but the idea that I might be on the ground floor of creating what Jewish communal experience means to a generation of people who won’t have to wonder, ‘Where do I go at 40?’ because this will become such a sustainable, scalable concept, that for American Jewry, this is what you do.”
Looking ahead, Siegal said The Soul Center will continue its mission while honing programming and developing new classes and events.
“We’re always going to have some sort of yoga, some kind of meditation, even if it changes along the way,” she said. “And I would also say Healing Service and Caregiver Café will continue, which are the two main programs in the healing pillar.”
Saroken said the ever-expanding array of programs at The Soul Center “goes on and on.”
“We know that people are overwhelmed with getting everything done, managing their inboxes, their work life and family lives and caring for young and/or aging loved ones. We do believe that in order to thrive and to be happy and at peace we need to make time for community, for connection and for personal and spiritual growth,” she said. “We do our best to bring that to people constantly. And to make sure that any time someone walks through our doors, they feel seen and heard and cared for. They feel like they can exhale, enjoy, even feel indulged and that when they leave they feel better, more anchored, more focused, more connected, and more inspired to live and to love with gusto.”