"Too often, we divorce our 'work life' from our 'real life,' from our innermost beliefs and convictions. But 'work' can be as much a part of our life-and as much a vehicle for spiritual growth and personal understanding-as going to synagogue or church on Saturday or Sunday or taking a walk in the woods or reading quietly to our kids at bedtime. In fact work may be among the most potent vehicles for fulfilling our spiritual life because, for many of us, it presents the best opportunities to meld community and social and economic productivity with personal belief and individual talent."
-from the Introduction by Norman Lear
By exploding our assumptions that work and spirituality are irreconcilable, Salkin explores how spirituality can enhance our 9-to-5 lives. "It is time to be as rich internally as we are externally," he writes, offering soul-stirring ways to "smuggle religion" into our workplace.
Where do you go when you've been a congregational rabbi for 27 years, written five best-selling books and are looking for something else? If you are Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin, you found, direct and serve as rabbi for a new organization, Kol Echad: Making Judaism Matter, a trans-denominational, adult learning community in Atlanta.
This adult-education institute, located in an office complex, is "an amalgamation, like a kollel for non- Orthodox Jews," Rabbi Salkin said in a phone interview. He will be in Overland Park this weekend, serving as scholar in residence at The Temple, Congregation B'nai Jehudah Nov. 16-18.
His organization is experimenting with different kinds of outreach, aiming to be "a liberal alternative to Chabad." The programs seek to "teach Judaism in an intellectual, lively and playful way," said the rabbi. For example, one of the courses is "What Madonna Doesn't Know About Kabbalah."
Rabbi Salkin grew up in Long Island, N.Y., and is a 1981 graduate of the Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion. He is best known for his books on spirituality, all published by Jewish Lights Publishers. Among his works are: "Bar/Bat Mitzvah Memory Book: An Album for Treasuring the Spiritual Celebration;" "Being God's Partner: How to Find the Hidden Link Between Spirituality and Your Work;" "For Kids: Putting God on Your Guest List;" and "Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child's Bar or Bat Mitzvah."
The latter work, first published in 1992, is one of the top-selling books on American Judaism today. Thus, it is no coincidence that his scholar-in-residency falls during Jewish Book Month, which began Nov. 4.
Rabbi Salkin's most recent book was undertaken as a prelude to Israel's 60th birthday celebration in May 2008. "A Dream of Zion: American Jews Reflect on Why Israel Matters To Them" presents a multitude of Jewish voices, whose comments are categorized into five headings: identity and heritage, refuge, faith and covenant, tikkun olam and American historical perspective. Because there is no approved way of thinking about Israel, Rabbi Salkin said he looked for a multitude of mainstream opinions. Yet the variety of contributors is amazing -- Lillian Hellman, Harpo Marx, Debbie Friedman, Albert Einstein, Solomon Schechter, Danny Maseng, Emma Lazarus, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and 105 more.
"I edited this book because I was profoundly aware of the emotional distancing taking place between American Jews and Israel," Rabbi Salkin said. "The inconvenient truth is that Jews travel less, give less and care less (about Israel)."
Rabbi Salkin would like to see this book read by anyone who is curious about Israel, especially non- Jews, many of whom have a "blind spot" when it comes to Israel.
A recent study undertaken by Steven M. Cohen and Avi Kelman reported that less than 50 percent of the Jews surveyed believe if the state of Israel were destroyed it would be a profound loss for them. "I wanted to create a book so everyone would understand why (so many) Jews care about Israel."
Rabbi Salkin says he would like to "hit control/alt/delete, reboot the Jewish spiritual computer, reformat the hard drive and reinspire American Jews."
--Sybil Kaplan "The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle " Since Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin wrote Putting God on the Guest List: How To Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child's Bar or Bat Mitzvah in 1980, doing mitzvot has become fashionable, while Israel, the topic of his latest book, has become decidedly "passe."
"Al Gore's inconvenient truth is global warming. Our problem is a little bit of freezing. We are cooling off in terms of our relationship to Israel. It's almost as if we have internalized the attitudes in the surrounding world, especially on college campuses," said Salkin in a recent telephone interview from Boston.
His book, A Dream of Zion: American Jews Reflect on Why Israel Matters to Them, published by Jewish Lights in 2007, is a project he undertook as a corrective to that "cooling" trend, he said. "I edited Dream of Zion to strengthen the connection of American Jews to Israel and to give them role models for how to support Israel. There's no orthodoxy in this book -- no one approved method. There are right-wing Zionists and people critical of Israeli policy. But every person in the book wants Israel to be democratic, Jewish, and secure," he said.
A Reform rabbi, Salkin acknowledged the trend is particularly acute among Reform Jews. "Reform Jews are statistically the least connected to Israel, they go to Israel the least, their children go to Israel the least, and they tend to be more critical of Israel," he said.
If the connection is less visceral among this group, he also acknowledged that it is due to demographic trends, including the high numbers of non-Jews being brought into the denomination through intermarriage. "It does seem to be a smoking pistol," he said. "It is fair to say that demographic trends in the Reform movement have put a strain upon our commitment to the larger Jewish community and people," he said.
Salkin also pointed to the rise in "Jewish spirituality" as another culprit in the lessening of interest in Israel. "To the extent that Jewish spirituality has grown in the movement, there has been a concomitant shrinkage of Jewish peoplehood. Ethnic ties have grown strained. As we become more removed from the immigrant generation and more American, our commitment to the larger Jewish people is becoming strained."
Salkin himself has written and edited books that focus on bringing spirituality into one's life, including Being God's Partner: How to Find the Hidden Link between Spirituality and Your Work.
Salkin is the founder, rabbi, and director of Kol Echad: Making Judaism Matter, a transdenominational kollel, or Jewish learning center, in Atlanta. Kol Echad was established in 2007. If this generation is less engaged with Israel, they are more focused on tzedaka.
"There's a new hipness to altruism," said Salkin. "I find many families increasingly interested in engaging in good works, and tzedaka. In some cases, they're even becoming competitive with each other. The same effort that used to go into the celebration now goes into doing good works."
And while he said he wishes the motivation were pure, he'll take the deeds. "Even if people do good, ethical things for narcissistic reasons, they are still doing good things," he said. He's also thrilled that the impetus for the mitzvot often comes from the family itself, rather than as one more hoop for a young person to jump through before his or her big day.
So does Salkin think there's still room for improvement? Yes. "I wish families were doing more things that are specifically Jewish," he said. "Many people give to the disease of the week or to save the whales. We need to redress the imbalance between the universal and the particular. We need to remind ourselves that if we as Jews do not give to Jewish causes, who will?"
--Johanna Ginsberg "New Jersey Jewish News "