After years as a pulpit rabbi and author of popular guides to Jewish living, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin admits that his new job might seem like a “major career jump.”
As the new head of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey office, he’s more likely to be tracking hate crimes than, as he did in perhaps his best known book, urging families of b’nei mitzva to “put God on the guest list.”
“But in many ways it is a return to my first love and first passion — trying to create solutions to anti-Semitism and extend that to combating bigotry in general,” said Salkin, who officially starts his new job on July 16.
When he does, he’ll be responsible for fighting anti-Semitism and promoting civil rights in a territory that reaches from the New York State border down to Trenton.
Over breakfast at a diner in Livingston, Salkin talked about his career as a Reform rabbi, and the early influences that have led him to believe his new role will be “closing a loop.”
“I got my training early on as a child and later in college fighting anti-Semitism. I was bullied as a kid,” he said. “On the college campus I was forced to defend Israel intellectually during the Yom Kippur War and its aftermath. So this job is a logical extension of that.”
Ordained as a Reform rabbi in 1981, Salkin has been a pulpit rabbi in Port Washington, NY, and Atlanta and Columbus, Ga. He founded a Jewish adult education center known as Kol Echad, and has written eight books on a broad range of Jewish topics.
But the job brings him back to his childhood, growing up in “the marginally working-class community of Bethpage, Long Island, where Jews were in the minority. I was bullied by kids who had no concept of what Jews were.”
But at a Bethpage High School class reunion 30 years after graduation, “some of my classmates came up to me and actually apologized.”
The lesson he learned is that “bigotry is a curable disease — not always, but often. Sometimes knowledge is an antidote and sometimes forming relationships is. Once you know someone, it is much harder to hate them,” he said.
Salkin believes the ADL’s “first mandate is to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and the second part is to stop the defamation of all peoples and ending bigotry. ADL has worked effectively with other organizations including African Americans, Hispanics, and now, the emerging lesbian and gay community…The commandment in the Torah repeated more than any other is to love the stranger and to care about people on the fringes of society.”
Noting that the contemporary “stranger” is often a Muslim, Salkin said he built bridges with the Muslim community as spiritual leader of Temple Israel in Columbus.
“One of the things that perturbs me the most and I hope would perturb Jews the most is the gratuitous lumping of all Muslims into one vile pile, with one monolithic way of looking at the world,” he said.
On Sept. 11, 2011, Salkin’s synagogue sponsored an interfaith anniversary memorial.
“In one service you had English, Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew. Some Muslims expressed concern that they might not be able to return to their mosque in time for their evening services, so I said, ‘No problem. Bring your prayer rugs and you can use our social hall.’ Our kids were fascinated and I am proud to say there was universal acceptance of the part of our leadership. These things reinforce in me the notion that if we can study together we can create bridges as we come to understand each other.”
Salkin also intends to build bridges between younger people and Israel.
“I believe our college students have to be better prepared to answer and respond to the challenges they are going to face,” he said.
While other Israel advocacy groups have been addressing Israel activism on campus, Salkin said that “the ADL is proactive, not reactive. Our focus will be dealing with high school students before they go to college, perhaps in partnership with other organizations.
“I am not sure that providing kids with a catechism of responses is the best way to handle this. Our kids are far too sophisticated to be satisfied with verbal index cards of responses,” he said.
Writing to ‘touch people’
In addition to Putting God on the Guest List, a spiritual guide to the bar and bat mitzva, Salkin has written books on Israel, spirituality, and righteous gentiles in the Torah.
Salkin expects to continue writing “as a way for me to touch people that I can’t meet.” Now that his eighth book, Text Messages: A Torah Commentary for Teens, has been published by the Jewish Publication Society, he is preparing his ninth, The Gods are Broken.
He describes it as “a story of Jews as iconoclasts…We Jews have classically been critics of the societies in which we have lived. You don’t often win popularity contests when you do that.”
Salkin succeeds Etzion Neuer, who was director of ADL’s NJ office between 2004 and 2011. Neuer is currently director of community service and policy for the ADL’s New York Region.
“He has the educational background of a rabbi and the experience of handling a congregation, and he has had anti-Semitic experiences,” Larry Cooper, the state ADL chair, said of Salkin.
Salkin, who recently moved to South Orange with his wife, Sheila Shuster, will maintain office space at Cooper’s Florham Park law firm.
Cooper told NJJN that Salkin has many important items on his agenda.
“He must and will establish rapport with other organizations in the state, and we want to maintain our organizational relationship with law enforcement,” he said. “We are concerned about people who could use more education on issues of anti-Semitism and social justice. We want to be able to go into public and parochial schools to present programs on how to handle those problems,” he said.
Cooper said he has a lot of confidence in Salkin.
“We are in a honeymoon stage and I think that is going to continue for a long, long time,” he said.