It’s been a long week, you’re still sore from that cardio workout two days ago, there’s fluffy white stuff falling from the sky and all you want to do is go home and eat leftover cheese. You think to yourself, “Do I really need to go out to one more event this week?”
When 330 of your soon-to-be best friends (or at least friendly acquaintances) are waiting for you at the event “Women, Wine & Wisdom,” the answer is yes, yes you do. You’ve got new people to meet and existing connections to strengthen (plus, there’s wine). Let’s go, ladies!
On Jan. 17, Beth El Congregation’s Soul Center hosted “An Intimate Conversation Around Soulful Living and Spiritual Journeys” in celebration of the center’s second complete year of being in operation (6,000 served). It sounds heavy and broad, but a lot of ground was covered in an approachable, enjoyable way in just over an hour, thanks to the two women on stage.
The Soul Center’s Rabbi Dana Saroken facilitated the discussion with her special guest, Rabbi Naomi Levy, a best-selling author (including “Einstein and the Rabbi,” “To Begin Again” and “Talking to God”), who was named one of Newsweek’s Top 50 Rabbis in America and is founder of Nashuva, an L.A.-based Jewish spiritual outreach movement.
A note left at each place setting by Rabbi Saroken set the tone for the evening: “Nights like these are an affirmation to us that gathering together, as women, to explore the complexities of what it means to be ‘human’ really matters,” she wrote. “I hope that tonight’s program also affirms the strength and resilience of the human spirit and our ability to begin anew at any stage of our lives.”
Following some casual mingling, lots of polite introductory chit-chat and some sipping and nibbling, Cantor Melanie Blatt, Beth El’s cantor/educator/director of community engagement, got things rolling with a moment of mindfulness. She urged the sellout crowd to close their eyes and place their feet flat on the floor. “Notice and appreciate the warmth of being surrounded by so many wise women … with the ability to inspire,” she intoned. For the uninitiated, The Soul Center prides itself on being a “come as you are kind of place” that represents a Judaism that is creative, inspiring and real.
After being introduced by Rabbi Saroken, Rabbi Levy talked about her childhood in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Boro Park (“We grew up like a tribe. It was beautiful.”); immigration, (“I’ve been thinking a lot about refugees lately. My grandfather came here by himself with false papers.”), the power of prayer (she began writing her own prayers when realizing there was nothing in the prayer book for pregnant women); raising a child with special needs (her daughter taught her, “With prayer, you can find the strength to stand up on your own two feet”), believing in miracles and how to keep moving forward when the outlook seems bleak.
Rabbi Levy said she always knew she wanted to be a rabbi. “My father was in the schmatta business, [but] he taught me how to daven even when it was a sin to be teaching me these things.” She also said she always dressed as a Chasidic rabbi for Purim while all the other little girls were dressed as Queen Esther.
There were rounds of applause, outbursts of laughter and audible sighs throughout the program, but women in the audience were visibly touched when Rabbi Levy told a tragic story about her father being shot and killed when she was 15. She said many things died for her at that time.
“And God died, too, because I simply couldn’t understand how the God I believed in so deeply could permit such a horrible thing to happen to such a beautiful person. [long pause] I spent many years lost and pretending. With time, I recovered a faith that was deeper and stronger than ever before.” Rabbi Levy added, “All you have to do is open up today’s paper to understand if protecting righteous people was God’s job description, then any of us would say God should be fired.”
Rabbi Saroken specifically asked Rabbi Levy how she makes prayer personally meaningful.
“It’s a big question. … Every day that you wake up on this side of the ground is a miracle,” Rabbi Levy said. “I think in so many ways, the world’s conspiring for us but we don’t have the eyes to see it. Something as simple as a single prayer in the morning can change your day.”
Then, Rabbi Levy asked if she could lead a quick prayer. “I won’t get heavy. I’ll go light.” And she did.
When asked by Rabbi Saroken what tools we can use when we just need to begin again, Rabbi Levy noted, “What a powerful room full of remarkable women this is,” then she segued into Exodus and said it was the women who brought Pharaoh down. She brought up the point that Miriam and the women stopped after passing through the Red Sea to sing to God (with musical instruments).
She joked that the answer to the question: “How did they have time to pack instruments when they didn’t even have time for the bread to leaven?” would have been Miriam responding, “Listen, sisters, pack your drums.” And, as Rabbi Levy concluded, “Trust me. You will have cause to celebrate. So, pack your drums.”
For more information on the Soul Center, go to soulcenterbaltimore.org.