In anticipation of this High Holiday season, Beth El Congregation’s Rabbi Dana Saroken recommends that people make three lists for themselves to guarantee personal and spiritual growth.
“Right now, people are anxious and scared to simply walk outside their door or go back to their workplaces or schools, or to send their kids out in the world,” Rabbi Saroken said on the Sept. 1 broadcast of “The Upside.” “If you can, make space to sit down and make a list — one for things I need to clear up or clean up, and another about things I need to work on with myself where I can grow and become my best self. And then, my relationship with God, a spiritual checkup. …
“If you’re able to do that work for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, you will be transformed,” she said. “We don’t want to be carrying brokenness. We want to liberate ourselves from the parts that don’t work anymore or hold us back.”
In her 50-minute conversation with “Upside” hosts Dr. Scott Rifkin, publisher of Jmore, and Beth H. Goldsmith, chair of the board for The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, Rabbi Saroken, founder of The Soul Center at Beth El, spoke about how to get spiritually prepared for the High Holidays in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s the big question looming for all of us right now,” she said. “Our ancestors also had to wrestle with uncertainty about when they would reach the Promised Land. Human beings don’t do well with the unknown. It’s a scary place to be. For many of us going into the holidays, there are a lot of questions percolating — how will I take care of myself, or about getting to a Zoom service, or how will I set the dinner table, or how will I be transformed by these holidays?
“It will be different,” Rabbi Saroken said. “But the holidays give us the ability to look backward and also the ability to aspire to dream and reimagine what could be in our community and world. One of the pandemic’s lessons is to let go and allow the prayers and the stories of the Torah into your soul and give us this period of time to dream and imagine.”
Yom Kippur, in particular, is a time for reflection, self-discovery and renewal, she said. “When the gates of Yom Kippur close, you should feel like you have a new life. There is no more hope-filled day than Yom Kippur, and we’ve never needed the opportunity more than we do today,” she said.
Finding spiritual nourishment virtually is a challenge but possible, the rabbi said.
“It’s an amazing thing to me that no matter what your relationship is with our tradition, there’s something that brings you back,” she said. “How will we connect this year in a virtual world? We’re all grappling with that, about how to experience the holiday through Zoom or Facebook Live. But I think people this year will be in the comfort of their homes, singing and listening to traditional prayers and blessings, and will be using creative ways to do all that, which will be really exciting.
“We can all wrestle with and learn from our tradition together and figure out how it resonates with us this year,” Rabbi Saroken said. “When you hear the shofar, what are we to awaken from? What’s in our kishkes and our souls? There’s an opportunity here to feel something deeper and experience together.”
Parents will be called upon to help their children experience meaningful holidays this year more than ever before, she said.
“I feel many kids will be different and better people because we lived through this experience,” said Rabbi Saroken. “Kids have suffered a lot of losses, as people of all ages have, but this is something that they can see [in which] doing their share is a contribution that matters. Recognizing every action has ramifications, and if we all do our part, there is a beautiful remedy, that we can find a silver lining. …
“This is a chance for children and adults alike to be creative that will be powerful,” she said. “We’ll still be able to bless our children and say prayers, and fast and do tashlich. Next year, please God, we’ll be back together, and I think it’ll feel delicious and be extraordinary. There was so much we used to take for granted. We miss seeing each other and learning together and acknowledging people in all their being. That’s powerful. So I think the holidays will be an opportunity to dig a little deeper.”
When asked about helping young people manage stress and anxiety during the pandemic, Rabbi Saroken said she was reminded of when she lived in Manhattan during the 9/11 terrorist attacks and felt hesitant to write a High Holiday sermon because of the murkiness and fluidity of that situation.
“Right now, kids, teenagers and college students are trying to dip their big toes in the water,” she said. “We can’t help navigate because it’s all unknown. So they’re summoning their courage and trying to jump in.
“I see a lot of kids going back to school with excitement but anxiety. My heart goes out to college kids. They’re in this new place and not allowed to gather or share meals, and there’s a wondering if they’ll stay in school. My heart is with those kids and their families right now.”
When asked by Goldsmith about books for personal and spiritual growth during this particularly challenging High Holiday season, Rabbi Saroken offered several recommendations. Among them were Alan Lew’s “This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation,” “The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays” by Rabbi Irving Greenberg, and Brene Brown’s “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.” She also suggested reading the works of Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankl.
“Choose a book that helps you get unstuck, whomever your teacher might be, someone who challenges you to rethink things,” she said. “You don’t have a doctor for your soul or spirit. You have to do that for yourself. Give yourself permission to start anew.”
For more from Rabbi Saroken, watch the full conversation below: