When Jewish Women International selects its annual “Women to Watch” honorees, it’s a daunting process, to put it mildly, says Loribeth Weinstein, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that aims to empower and inspire women and girls.

“Approximately 150 women are nominated throughout the year,” she says, “and each one is an inspiration.”

Rabbi Dana Saroken

Beth El’s Rabbi Dana Saroken

But when it came to voting on the nomination of Rabbi Dana Saroken, associate rabbi of Pikesville’s Beth El Congregation, Weinstein says, “We’ve rarely had as much of a unanimous decision. It was signed, sealed and delivered.”

Rabbi Saroken, 46, will be recognized, along with nine other “Women to Watch” from around the country, at JWI’s annual leadership awards gala on Dec. 11, at the Marriott Wardman Park, 2600 Woodley Road in Washington. (Among the honorees will be Washington area CPA Kathy Raffa, a Pikesville native.)

“Dana embodies the spirit and accomplishments of our Women to Watch,” says Weinstein. “She is recognized as a really unique leader … a female rabbi with a strong intellect and passion for the spiritual side of Judaism. She’s a standout.”

Being named one of JWI’s “Women to Watch” is a great honor, says Rabbi Saroken. “To be recognized as a role model inspires me even more to do great things in the years to come,” she says. “I hope to continue raising awareness of important topics and issues and shaping the next generation to create a kinder, more compassionate and more caring world where we can all thrive.”

Rabbi Saroken’s journey to a Jewishly committed life began when she was a teenager in Northern Westchester, N.Y. The daughter of “culturally religious” parents, Rabbi Saroken began her own exploration of Judaism in her late teens with a summer program in Israel with the American Zionist Youth Foundation.

Becoming a rabbi wasn’t always her career path, however. After graduating from the University of Arizona’s honors program with a bachelor’s degree in political science and Jewish studies, Rabbi Saroken first worked as educational director of an international organization called Up With People that provided community service programs and educational opportunities for young adults throughout North America and Europe. She then became director of the Jewish Student Association at Georgetown University.

“From those experiences, I realized that working with the Jewish community, teaching, counseling and bringing Jewish values and Torah to people of all ages was what I wanted to do with my life,” says Rabbi Saroken.

She went on to study at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where she was ordained in 2004. She served as assistant rabbi at the New City Jewish Center in New York, and 10 years ago she and her husband, Rafi Rone, and their three children moved to Baltimore.

Among her many mentors, Rabbi Saroken credits Beth El’s late spiritual leader, Rabbi Mark G. Loeb, with teaching her how to create a “kind and civil” community where people respect one another as human beings and “lift each other up.”

“I feel proud and privileged to have the opportunity to connect with people through the rabbinate and help them grow in our traditions and rituals, and bring them closer to God and Torah,” she says.

One of Rabbi Saroken’s proudest accomplishments was the 2015 creation of the Alvin & Lois Lapidus Center for Healing & Spirituality, also known as The Soul Center.

The Soul Center is a “spiritual startup that focuses on mindfulness, healing, rejuvenation and growth, within a Jewish context,” she says. It offers workshops, seminars, religious services and classes that focus on the spiritual health needs of Jewish community.

“Through the Soul Center, we have the opportunity to learn how we can support each other in times of aloneness,” says Rabbi Saroken. “We can listen to each other and be strengthened by our traditions and by each other. We can learn to grow in different ways.”

Rabbi Saroken says she is proud to be part of a synagogue community that initiates and participates in conversations about how Judaism can be relevant into the 21st century.

“How can Judaism continue to be an important part of our lives, how can we stay committed even with our differences, how can we accommodate our changing demographics,” she says, “these are all questions we need to discuss.”

For information on the JWI Awards Gala and a complete list of the 2017 “Women to Watch,” visit jwi.org.

Top photo: Rabbi Dana Saroken (right) shown with Soul Center Managing Director Rachel Siegal (left). (Photo by Evan Cohen)

Carol Sorgen is a Baltimore-based freelance writer

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