Rabbi SaraLeya has stepped back from her Rabbinic role at Chochmat HaLev due to increased responsibilities as a physician. She will continue to guide the community as Rabbi Emerita, lead some life cycle events and will continue her work with Laura Goldman, Jeffrey Kessler, and Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks in the Tikkun Middot Project- a national program of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality.
Rabbi SaraLeya says it was “the spirit of the place, the reverence and commitment to praying and learning together,” that made her want to be the spiritual leader of Chochmat HaLev. “Plus, I just really liked the people.”
“I find that the spiritual work has made me a much better doctor,” she says. “I’ve learned to hone in and focus on the essence of what’s really going on with someone while still addressing their symptoms.”
And how does her medical career influence her rabbinate? “It grounds me as a rabbi. One can tend to get so isolated in the world of Judaism that you forget people are living lives outside synagogue life. It keeps me in the real world, which is really important. I feel my two careers really complement each other.”
Rabbi SaraLeya grew up in a Conservative home in Philadelphia, where “the dryness and what felt like a lack of sincerity in prayer pushed me away.” In college she “pretty much left Judaism.”
She found spirituality mostly in nature, and became an avid rock-climber. She married her climbing partner and they lived throughout the West, in Reno, Bishop, and Tucson, enjoying the desert and the mountains.
When the older of her three children (twin boys, Carl and Josh) were about five, she began wondering what kind of upbringing to give them, and she slowly began returning to Judaism (her non-Jewish husband agreed to raise the kids Jewish).
In Tucson, she belonged to the JCC and a Conservative temple. “And I started chanting haftorah, and reconnecting,” she says.
It was also there that the hand injury surfaced, which set her on her spiritual path. Unable to work or climb, she started with biofeedback, which led to TM (Transcendental Meditation), which led her to a woman teaching a class on the Kabbalah. Through that class, she found out about the Jewish retreat center Elat Chayyim. After attending a retreat there, “from then, my life changed completely.” That was in 1997, and by 2000, she was enrolled as a rabbinical student both through the Renewal’s ALEPH program, and the Los Angeles-based Academy of Jewish Religion. Born Susan, she began going by her Hebrew name, SaraLeya.
In her spiritual autobiography, Rabbi SaraLeya writes, “Jewish Renewal taught me a path to God and to myself. [At the beginning, it took me almost three years until I could actually say the G-word out loud!] I describe the process as hesitatingly stepping into the bottom of a whirlwind, and coming out the top seven years later a rabbi ordained by ALEPH in January 2005. The transformation was nothing other than miraculous, and, I believe, fully divinely-orchestrated.”
She ended up being ordained from ALEPH because her youngest child was still at home, and though they were living in Berkeley at this time, it was too taxing on her family to have SaraLeya in Los Angeles every week.
Alhough she originally landed in Berkeley in 2001 because of a relationship – one that ultimately resulted in a deep friendship – she was grateful to end up in a place where she and her family could feel so at home. Her daughter Elise ended up graduating from the Jewish Community High School in San Francisco, and has finished her undergraduate work at the University of Pennsylvania. Her twin boys have both served in the Israeli Army. Carl is now working as a R.N. in Reno, NV. Josh, who had already graduated from Berkeley High and then in Mechanical Engineering from Cal Poly, is still in the IDF and plans to stay in Israel.