Fried Chicken and Speaking Jewish:
Embracing Diversity and Community

Sarenka Smith

Background and Upbringing

“I was born and raised in Baltimore City, and attended Krieger Schechter Day School, Baltimore City College High School (“City”) and Johns Hopkins University on a full merit scholarship. Krieger Schechter was critical in shaping my strong relationship with Judaism, and City was one of the most impactful experiences of my life. I wrote my college essay about the transition from Schechter to City — titled Fried Chicken and Speaking Jewish — to articulate what it was like to learn about the importance of community: a place that includes people who do not look like me or share a common background.”

Involvement in the Associated

I’m actively involved in several Baltimore Jewish community initiatives with The Associated, Chabad, and Beth Am Synagogue, where I have been a life-long member. I also participate in a monthly women’s Rosh Chodesh group, conceived by a friend who works for The Associated. I always joke that I’m a ‘volunteer’ for the organization; this past summer, I was asked to serve as “Camp Ambassador” for Camp Nai Nai Nai and actively supported outreach, recruiting marketing, etc. That was a really fun and memorable experience since it allowed me to be creative while building community…I find it so enriching to bring people together and support new connections and relationships. 
In My Spare Time 
When I was in college, I minored in Theater Arts & Studies — and had leading roles in several theatrical productions at Hopkins. I also did work in comedy at Upright Citizens Brigade in NYC, an improvisational and sketch comedy training center and theatre (Amy Poehler was one of the founding members). Those are still things that bring me a ton of joy: theater and comedy, in addition to literature, very good cheese, underground hip hop and Kabbalat Shabbat services.

Career Path

Wow, this is a tough one since I’ve honestly had a fairly non-linear career trajectory. During my undergraduate years at Johns Hopkins, I majored in the Writing Seminars — in retrospect, that was very helpful since every single industry / sector needs good writers. But I’ve also worked in public policy on Capitol Hill, as a reporter with articles published in Baltimore City Paper and The Jerusalem Post, and then spent several years in B2B marketing & communications. I recently completed my MBA at Hopkins and now work as director of sales & market development for Scene Health: a digital health tech company focused on solving medication nonadherence through the power of people, science and technology. 
Professional Advice 
I always worried that I didn’t have a linear path, unlike friends who — for example — went to law school or medical school and had every step planned out from the beginning. I’ve only recently come to terms with the fact that it’s okay to try different things…I think as we mature and grow, we realize new things about ourselves, and / or emerging talents and skills

Mental Health Awareness

It’s so tough, but it really requires practice. I don’t just magically wake up feeling grateful and happy all the time; gratitude is something I actively practice. I used to hear euphemisms like “recovery is a marathon, not a sprint” and I would roll my eyes…but mental and emotional health requires time, effort, willingness, and commitment. In my situation, it also requires the help of a competent and skilled therapist whom I adore. 
Misconceptions About Mental Health 
One of the biggest misconceptions about mental health is thinking it’s some kind of personality weakness or character flaw. Mental health conditions have nothing to do with being lazy or weak, and the advice “just snap out of it” is never useful. I also find it remarkable how many people struggle with mental health; according to SAMHSA, one in five Americans experienced a mental health condition in 2020.

Overcoming Addiction

That would take more than a few sentences, but what I will say is that addiction turns people into monsters. It’s difficult to describe how destructive the disease is: I regularly tell people that it’s completely devoid of logic, and it makes us act in insane ways. Everything becomes unimportant, including food, water, shelter, family, friends…the only important thing is the drug itself. Addiction causes people to lie, steal, cheat and act in profoundly self-destructive ways. My recovery was certainly not linear, and it took several years, but by Thanksgiving of 2019, I was reunited and reintegrated into my family. That has been the biggest milestone: creating and reenjoying meaningful, close, intimate relationships. Sometimes, I still marvel at the fact that friends often call ME in a crisis…instead of me calling them!
Reclaiming my life
Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol aren’t the root causes of addiction — they’re merely a solution. For me, I had a host of other issues to tackle. It was only when I began to work on deeply ingrained insecurities, character defects, mental health comorbidities and an array of cognitive distortions that I began to truly ‘recover.’ Anyone can stop using drugs or alcohol for a period of time; the really hard stuff begins when you do the internal work. My recommendation is always to get a great therapist: someone you learn to trust very deeply, but who will also call you out in an assertive loving way.

Advice and Reflections

There’s a quote by Anaïs Nin that I have pinned to my wall in my bedroom: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Don’t wait for that day…life doesn’t need to get so painful that you are forced to change. Think about the person you want to be earlier in life and take steps towards that. I also wish more people had told me, “Don’t be so hard on yourself.” We’re our own biggest critics; it’s so important to be gentle with ourselves. A friend once told me, “If you only had 20% to give today and you gave that, then you gave 100%.” 
Define Success 
I used to think success was measured by academic and professional accomplishments and achievements; in fact, I thought that for many years. I think today, I define success through my own serenity levels. Am I actively taking steps to enrich my life, even if they are incremental? Do I have a vision of the life I want and is that aligned with my values? Additionally, if I do something each day to improve someone’s life — even something seemingly small — that day is a win.  


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The Associated is a home for everyone in the Baltimore Jewish community. We offer several email lists to help people find a community, engage with their peers and support Jewish journeys around the world.

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