Sometimes, a person has the good fortune to be able to pursue several passions at once.
Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, recently named director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey office and a longtime writer on the subject of Jewish values, considers himself among those fortunate people.
In bringing together both areas of interest, Salkin – who will speak at Tenafly’s Temple Sinai on Oct. 28 – hopes to “reach audiences in different ways.”
Focusing on the issue of bullying, the ADL director will “bring to the conversation a discussion of how we can raise consciousness about this and let Jewish values find a voice in this discussion.”
“For many years, I’ve devoted a lot of writing and thinking to the subject of bar/bat mitzvah,” said Salkin, whose Tenafly talk is called “From bully to blessings – being a mensch at your bar or bat mitzvah.”
His book Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah, was published in the 1990s and continues to be a top seller. Text Messages: A Torah Commentary for Teens was published in June and “brings together divrei Torah by all sorts of Jews aimed at teens, [spurring them] to think about what’s important in their lives.”
Reciting a list of contributors to the new book – from those in the Jewish Renewal movement to representatives of the three major streams of Judaism – Salkin said the combination of these views “is a lesson of civility we can bring to the new year.”
Noting that most of his career has been involved in conversations about rituals and celebrations, the rabbi said, “We need to reclaim [the idea] that a 13-year-old is morally responsible. You have a moral responsibility to stick up for your friends.”
Upon reaching the age of bar mitzvah, “You have to take your training wheels off – upgrade to being a mensch,” living your life according to Jewish values. A mensch, he added, “is not perfect, not a saint. One simply has to try hard enough.”
In his talk at Temple Sinai, the new ADL director hopes to connect with parents concerned about the issue of bullying, showing them how the ADL is tackling the problem on a national level.
“This is not your grandfather’s ADL,” he said, noting that the organization is not just concerned about anti-Semitism but “about how we take care of everybody. We have a responsibility to make it better,” he said, pointing out that the ADL has launched a national anti-bullying initiative.
“In my new role, I’ve become convinced that bullying is a major issue,” said Salkin, adding that the Centers for Disease Control has identified bullying as a major public health problem among American teenagers.
“We’ve got to believe that it’s equally as bad in the Jewish community,” he said.
Salkin said he spoke to a woman in Jerusalem about the problem over the summer.
“Her ears perked up,” he said. “Her daughter had been bullied in a Jewish day school, and the administration did nothing about it.”
Bullying is not always physical, he noted, but also may include both verbal assaults and emotional browbeating. In addition, cyber-bullying is a growing concern.
“Most people most of the time don’t do any violence with their fists, but we do it with our lips,” he said. “The tongue is such a dangerous organ. While it is surrounded by walls of flesh, it is guarded by a cage of teeth.”
In addition to teaching the value of prudent speech, he will also speak about “not standing idly by,” as found in Leviticus, 19. In Tenafly, he will stress the idea of “not standing idly by when you see a kid being harassed.”
“I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid,” he joked, explaining his commitment to addressing the issue. He noted as well that he was greatly influenced by the film “Bully” and has come to realize that “we, as Jews, need a response to this.”
The ADL, he said, is bringing its anti-bullying program into public schools throughout the country.
“We did it recently in Morristown,” he added, “largely as a result of the suicide of a teenager [there] in the late spring.”
“It’s not enough merely to talk about how to solve the issue on a communal level,” he said. “This is a Jewish issue because we are a bullied people and we are descended from the great teacher, Moses, who started his career fighting against bullies.”
He noted that resources are being developed across the country to address the issue from the perspective of Jewish values.