FAIR LAWN, NJ – Starting a new job is never easy. But during a pandemic? It can be a downright challenge – one that Rachel Salston is eager to take on.
Salston, 30, officially begins Aug. 1 as a rabbi at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel. The New Brunswick native said she is “excited and honored” to take on her new role, saying she believes it is “a wonderful fit” for her.
With coronavirus concerns still front and center, houses of worship across New Jersey are using different approaches – from live-streaming services online to offering online prayer– to try and stay connected with their congregations.
As she steps into her new role, Salston knows the pandemic will impact how she serves the community for the foreseeable future which will require thinking outside the box.
Even the way she was hired – via a series of web-based video conference calls – “was uncommon” and “a sign of the times we’re in,” she said.
“But I am so glad that we have found each other,” Salston said. “I feel at home in the community. We are a community that cares about each other, prayer and Judaism.”
Jeffrey Herrmann, president and chair of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel Rabbinical Search Committee, said they spent several months trying to find the right candidate but the search wasn’t going well.
Then, the virus hit.
That, he said, “made the task seem far more difficult than we ever imagined.”
But Salston emerged as a “proverbial ray of sunshine piercing the gloom of March 2020,” Herrmann said.
“At the end of our first Zoom interview with Rabbi Salston, I knew we had found our next rabbi,” said Herrmann, adding that her “enormous enthusiasm and energy, as well as her thoughtful words, were apparent even in the virtual environment.”
Calling Salston “an outstanding rabbi,” Herrmann praised her “ability to command the bimah and engage the congregation as a whole” and “ability to effectively provide pastoral care on an individual basis.”
“Further, her current service as a hospital chaplain during the pandemic showed her great empathy and ability to counsel, even in the most difficult of settings,” he said.
Salston is a graduate of Brandeis University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Neuroscience. She went on to attend the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and was ordained as a Rabbi in 2018.
While studying at the Seminary, Salston received the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s award for congregational leadership. Following her ordination, Salston spent a year as the ritual director at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York, NY before becoming chaplain at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick.
Most recently, she served as a part-time rabbi at the East Brunswick Jewish Center, the congregation she and her family are part of and “very involved with,” Salston said.
Salton’s role at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel is her first pulpit position. After unofficially starting in May, Salston has been getting to know the community, working on sermons and prepping for the High Holidays.
“I’m excited about getting to know people, to be part of the Jewish community and to help people find their place in it,” she said.
She’s also getting used to Bergen County after moving to Fair Lawn three weeks ago.
“It’s a very easy place to be Jewish and Kosher. There are so many restaurants and grocery stores,” she said, adding, “I’m overjoyed.”
The Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel has been offering Zoom services daily and on Shabbat. Click here for more information.
Salston hopes to expand online faith-based programs and activities in an effort to “reach people of all ages and encourage as much communal participation as possible.”
“As we approach the High Holidays that will be unlike any we have experienced before, with much physical distancing, I hope to make many telephone and Zoom calls to our members to check in on how they are coping, reflecting on the past year,” Salston said. “I hope to offer discussions and hands-on Zoom programs. I hope to start off with a Zoom challah baking program hosted from my kitchen!”
“We are a community, whether or not we are physically together in the building,” she said.