Eric Salitsky at the Cadet Interfaith Center on the campus of West Point, which was one of the stops on his 2019 tour of multifaith spaces in North America and Europe. (Photo/Tamara Cohen)
Eric Salitsky at the Cadet Interfaith Center on the campus of West Point, which was one of the stops on his 2019 tour of multifaith spaces in North America and Europe. (Photo/Tamara Cohen)

Jewish architect Eric Salitsky’s memorial gifts benefit Oakland ‘Designing Justice’ firm

Architect Eric Salitsky was deeply invested in architectural design that brought together people from different walks of life. That commitment led him to research multifaith worship spaces in hospitals, universities and airports across North America and Europe. It’s also what attracted him to the architecture and design firm Designing Justice + Designing Spaces.

The Oakland-based nonprofit firm specializes in buildings that promote restorative justice, from “mobile refuge rooms,” where formerly incarcerated people live while transitioning back into their communities, to co-working spaces for social activist organizations. In 2019, the firm opened the nation’s first center for restorative justice and restorative economics, in East Oakland, according to its website.

“I’m a big fan of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces,” Salitsky wrote in a September 2020 email to friends from Camp Ramah in New England, during a Rosh Hashanah discussion about organizations deserving of tzedakah. “They use architecture, planning, and development to fight mass incarceration.”

On May 5, Salitsky was tragically struck by a truck while riding his bicycle near his Brooklyn home and died at a hospital. He was 35 and “eagerly anticipating the arrival of his first child” with his wife, Tamara Cohen, according to his online obituary. (The 62-year-old driver of the private sanitation truck drove off, possibly unaware that he had hit Salitsky; the New York Daily News reported that police issued the driver summonses for equipment violations but have not charged him with a crime.)

In the days after Salitsky’s death, his mother, Barbara, reached out to Designing Justice + Designing Spaces staff and informed them that the family had decided to direct memorial contributions to the firm. (Click here to make a donation in Salitsky’s memory.)

“We know Eric devoted his work to spaces that bring people together to resolve conflict, so there’s a strong connection between his work and our mission,” DJDS spokesman Jean Paul Zapata said.

Garrett Jacobs, DJDS’s director of project evaluation and research, knew Salitsky, though they were not close. They had traveled to Israel together in the early 2000s on a trip organized by Camp Ramah. “He was just a guy who was always positive and happy,” Jacobs recalled of his roommate. “He had long dreads at the time, and he was just always bringing the energy in the room up.”

Jacobs said he felt sad that he and Salitsky never had a chance to connect about their shared professional interests. “I really could have used a thought partner in the intersection of Judaism, spirituality and spaces that bring people together and help resolve conflict,” he said. “There’s not many of us at that intersection.”

A native of Worcester, Massachusetts, Salitsky lived in Berkeley during the summer of 2008 while doing an internship at Tikkun magazine. He and Cohen made aliyah in 2010, and they returned to the U.S. in 2013 so he could study architecture at Pratt Institute. After earning his master’s degree, he did consulting work on a multifaith space at Gallaudet University, the Washington, D.C., liberal arts university for the deaf and hard of hearing. He also recorded a 12-part webinar series about how to design and operate such spaces.

In August 2020, Salitsky joined ESKW/Architects, a midsize Manhattan firm that specializes in “institutions that enrich communities,” including schools and health care facilities. “He felt really proud to have found a place at ESKW/Architects because in a city of luxury real estate development, there aren’t a ton of options for folks who want to do community-focused design,” said Cohen, the executive director of Remix Market NYC, a creative reuse center.

Outside of work, Salitsky designed laser-cut ketubahs for friends. He was traditional in his practice of Judaism — one of his friends described him as a “neo-Chassid” — but also “as egalitarian and feminist as they come,” Cohen said, noting that he enjoyed lighting Shabbat candles.

Salitsky was scheduled to give a presentation titled “The Global Phenomenon of Multifaith Worship Spaces: A Guideline for Design and Development” on June 4 at the Architecture, Culture, and Spirituality Forum’s annual symposium. “He had written a paper based on his observations to codify his findings for use by chaplains, administrators and designers to create better spaces,” Cohen said. Two friends of his from Pratt were to present his paper on his behalf.

In an interview on the ESKW/Architects website, Salitsky spoke about his fascination with multifaith spaces.

“[T]hey are direct representations of our society at its best — aspiring toward multiculturalism and unity within diversity and rejecting tribalism and us vs. them,” he said. “At their most basic definitions, they’re equitable accommodations for religious minorities, since they are decidedly not Christian-centric. But on the other hand, they create a place for spiritual meaning-making that is also inherently social. By sharing a space of prayer or meditation with other groups, you recognize each other’s humanity.”

Reporter’s note: Salitsky, Cohen and I met in 2012 when we all lived in Tel Aviv. We became friends and regularly prayed and celebrated Shabbat together. Eric was intelligent, curious, cheerful and a true mensch. May his memory be a blessing.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv.