Susan Salzman, now the rebbetzin at Beth Messiah Congregation in Livingston, New Jersey, once worked in the heart of the fashion industry in New York City. As a product developer and trend forecaster for Ralph Lauren in the 1990s, she worked directly with Ralph’s older brother, Jerry, in menswear. She rubbed shoulders with famous models, including Tyson Beckford and Claudia Schiffer.
“I always worked with good companies and good people,” she says. “I was challenged in my work and got to travel. It was exciting and adventurous, but I felt the same way about my spiritual activities. I also wanted to get married and have kids.”
Now, at Beth Messiah, Susan leads a weekly prayer group and is the Shabbat school coordinator for the elementary, pre-teen and teenaged groups. She and her husband, the Rabbi Irving Salzman, have two children, Jacob, 14, and Shira, 11. Jacob was bar mitzvah last November.
Beth Messiah is a Messianic Jewish congregation. Irving attended a Lubavitcher Hasidim yeshiva as a youngster and adopted an observant lifestyle. He trained to become a Torah reader and cantor. Then, as a young man, he came to know a believer in Yeshua (Jesus) who challenged him to examine the prophecies regarding the promised Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures. Over time, Irving became convinced that Yeshua was that Messiah. Although he continued as leader in the synagogue, he found himself drawn to Yeshua and eventually decided to follow him.
Susan’s background is quite different from her husband’s. She is a fourth-generation Messianic Jew. Her grandfather, Isaac Levy Finestone, led a Messianic Jewish fellowship in New Jersey for many years. The youngest of three children, Susan grew up in a Jesus-believing home with a Jewish mother and gentile father.
“I distinctly remember Passover seders with my grandparents,” says Susan. “My grandfather prayed extremely long prayers. My grandmother’s handmade sponge cake was a highlight.
“We had monthly Bible studies in our home when we were young. At each meeting, a Jewish person would tell how he or she came to believe in Jesus. Many had been rejected and disowned, but still came to faith. They had such love despite their hardships. Seeing their joy and peace helped my faith to come alive.”
By age seven, she had committed her life to Yeshua—but not without an internal struggle.
“Early on I knew I could get away with things with my parents,” Susan explains. “But I knew God would see what I did, so I couldn’t hide. I felt a battle going on inside of me. I wanted to live my life for myself, and I understood that following Yeshua would mean coming under His authority. Eventually I felt I should no longer put it off. I felt the weight of my own sin. I didn’t want to die without having accepted him right then when I had the opportunity.”
Raised in New Jersey, Susan went on to attend Syracuse University in upstate New York, where she double majored in marketing and retail. After graduating in 1985, she worked as a buyer for women’s dresses at J.C. Penney, then did sales in a high-end Italian gloves showroom. After developing menswear for department stores’ private labels, she moved on to product development for Ralph Lauren’s men’s outerwear.
“Fashion always fascinated me,” says Susan. “To me it is part artistic, part practical.”
When asked if fashion design conflicts with devotion to God, Susan responds, “God is the creator of beauty. Fashion is about enjoying beauty and creativity. It’s fun and exciting. I appreciate the creativity of fashion design. Fashion is fantastic as long as its purpose is good and godly.”
Susan says that although her Jewishness didn’t directly relate to her career in fashion, she came in contact with a lot of Jewish people in the industry. And she shared her faith in Yeshua with those who were open enough to discuss it. But there were those who didn’t want to talk about it.
“It was a comfortable place to be as a Jewish person,” Susan says, “but not necessarily as a Jewish believer in Jesus.”
But, she says, telling others about Yeshua, whether as a fashion design worker, a rebbetzin, or a friend and neighbor, is something that flows out of her relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
“My Jewish identity is very precious to me,” she says. “It is a joy to celebrate Jewish holidays and remember what God has done for my people. It is a natural expression of my faith, as a Jewish person, to believe in the Messiah, Yeshua.”