Like the Anti-Defamation League itself, the new New Jersey ADL director comes from out of Georgia.
B’nai B’rith leaders founded the ADL in 1913, after the president of the Atlanta chapter of B’nai B’rith – Leo Frank – was convicted of murdering a 13-year-old girl in a trial marked by anti-Semitic press coverage.
Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, who started working for the ADL last month, was born on Long Island, but for the last nine years headed congregations in Atlanta and Columbus, Georgia.
In Atlanta, he led the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation – known as “the Temple” – the Reform synagogue made famous in the movie “Driving Miss Daisy.” Leo Frank had belonged to the Temple. In 1958, the Temple was bombed with 50 sticks of dynamite in the middle of the night.
Salkin said that traces of the Frank affair still linger, though people don’t talk about it. The Temple bombing continues to resonate loudly.
“There were many people who remember not going to religious school the next day. There were many people who remember the outpouring of caring that resulted from it,” he said.
A room in the Temple, Friendship Hall, commemorated the many donations non-Jews sent in sympathy after the bombing, until it was converted into a chapel during a recent renovation.
The Atlanta synagogue, Salkin noted, was not the first Southern Jewish institution to be firebombed by white supremacists angry at Jewish support for the civil rights struggle, but it was the most prominent.
“We’re not the first generation that has to deal with the implications of terror,” he said.
Salkin’s Atlanta experience made news broadcast references to “the attack on the [Sikh] temple” in Milwaukee particularly painful, “because I could relate to it. An attack on a Sikh temple could be, has been, could possibly be again, an attack on a Jewish institution. It happened in northern New Jersey recently,” he said.
All bigotry is connected, he added.
“An attack on a Sikh temple was an attack on the religious, ethnic, and cultural Other in America. As Jews we worry about that. As Americans we worry about that.
“Any Jew hearing about what happened at the Sikh temple would feel the parallels. Like the Jewish community, the Sikh community is a community that is on the ethnic boundaries of American life. Looking into the eyes of the Sikh community is in fact to look into the eyes of Jews,” he said.
For Salkin, the ADL embodies the relationship between two statements of Hillel: “If I am not for myself who will be for me?” and “If I am only for myself, what am I?”
“Its mission is to not only create a better Jewish future and a more secure Jewish people, but also to create a better America. We tend to associate the ADL with anti-Semitism. The ADL is also very much concerned with fighting bigotry of all kinds,” he said.
Salkin and his wife moved to New Jersey in June. (His wife, Sheila Shuster, is associate general counsel of ADP. They have four children.) He started his position at the ADL last month. After 30 years as a pulpit rabbi, and as a writer and speaker with a national reputation, his new job at the ADL might seem to be a career switch, but his experience dealing with and combating anti-Semitism goes back to his days as an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Purchase, where he majored in sociology.
At Purchase, Salkin founded and led the campus Jewish students association. With the Yom Kippur War raging, he asked for money for the Israel Emergency Fund.
“A faculty member came over to us and said, ‘I’m going to start collecting money for Arab children who are suffering as well.’ And while you can applaud his humanistic ideals, the fact of the matter is that Arab children were suffering because their leaders had the temerity to attack Israel on Yom Kippur.”
Salkin recalled another incident that put him on the front line in confronting anti-Semitism. A student had left her Chanukah candles burning in her dorm room, and they fell over and set the room on fire.
“Wouldn’t you know it, a group of people started a rumor that the Jews are burning down the dorm. That’s about as Kristallnacht as you can get. It was very disquieting,” he said.
“That was how I got my street cred fighting anti-Semitism.”
After college, he enrolled in the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.
“I grew up in a religiously conscious home. They sent me and my brother to the Reform movement’s Camp Eisner. There I fell in love with what Jewish spirituality and community could be and the rest is history,” he said.
Salkin’s commitment to Jewish spirituality may have had its broadest impact with the book he wrote 20 years ago. Published by Jewish Lights, Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah continues to be a top seller, with more than 70,000 copies in print. It was, Salkin said, “The first book to really raise the issue of what bar mitzvah had become in America and how it could be transformed.”
His most recent volume is one he edited. Text Messages: A Torah Commentary for Teens was published in June.
The assignment given to the book’s 100 contributors “was to write about a Torah portion and show kids what’s in it for them. The authors could go in one of two directions. One, what is it in this portion that totally sums up Judaism for you? Number two, what is it in this portion that sums up the issues that a teen is going to be dealing with in daily life?” Salkin said.
Anti-Semitism returned to his daily life in his most recent pulpit, Temple Israel in Columbus, Georgia, when he crossed paths with a white supremacist.
“In a local Starbucks I saw a young man reading a pile of books that included Das Kapital and Mein Kampf. It’s unusual to see someone reading such a pile of books. I struck up a conversation with him,” Salkin said.
“He then started badgering me with anti-Semitic email.
“Lo and behold I discovered my tires were slashed.
“When he was arrested for spraying mace in the face of a black man, I became pivotal in the investigation.
“He had an interesting prison sentence. He was sentenced to one year of prison and nine years of parole, which includes exile from that particular part of the state of Georgia. In my sermon on that, I said that now he knows how the Jew feels. His punishment is to live his life in exile. Our experience will now become his experience.”
The ADL does a great deal of work with Holocaust education and Jewish training for Catholic educators.
“The ADL is very much involved in healing the carcinogen of bullying in public schools. We have a tremendously effective anti-bullying program,” Salkin said.
And it also is involved in helping young people face the sort of fallout they encounter when they support Israel that Salkin faced 40 years ago.
“One of the big issues in Jewish life today is whether our young people will be adequately prepared when they go to college to face the anti-Israel propaganda that is propagated on almost any campus,” he said. “It’s not necessary to teach them a catechism of response, but to tutor them in the art of conversation about Israel itself. There are times when legitimate though painful critique of Israeli policy wanders off dangerously into anti-Semitic metaphors and ideas. We want to prepare young people to adequately respond to those issues.”
Salkin hopes to reinvigorate the ADL’s New Jersey region. Its last director, Etzion Neuer, was reassigned to the organization’s Manhattan headquarters in 2010. Salkin is exploring the possibilities of creating local programming, including bringing the organization’s anti-bullying programs to New Jersey schools, running programs locally to prepare students to discuss Israel on campus, and celebrating the organization’s centennial.
“I want to remind people why the ADL matters, and I want to teach a new generation of upcoming Jewish leaders why it’s a worthwhile effort to invest their energies and their leadership potential with us,” Salkin said. “When people understand our universal message, when they understand that we’re not only about understanding the pain of the Jewish community, but about black-Jewish issues, Muslim-Jewish issues, LGBT issues. In an increasingly multicultural America, the work of the ADL becomes even more important.
“The ADL has an extraordinarily high name recognition among Jews and among people on the street. They know what the ADL is, they know what the ADL does, and they respect the ADL’s mission.
“It’s a very exciting world that the ADL inhabits.”
Working in that world has highlighted for Salkin “the multiplicity of ways people express their Judaism. The ADL as a secular organization underscores the fact that a profound link to peoplehood as well as social justice is for many people a lynchpin of their Jewish identity.
“Spirituality is not a cause I have abandoned, but in addition to spirituality, you need the nuts and bolts, to be a living people with a program that goes beyond the walls of any synagogue.
“It’s a classic teaching that a synagogue must have windows, not only so light can get in, but so people can see out. While many things are endangering the Jewish community today, I would list near the top of the challenges the possibility of insularity. We Jews need to understand that other people are dealing with issues of exclusion and bigotry, and we Jews need to be part of the solution.”