Courtesy of Maytal Saltiel

The walls of Maytal Saltiel’s office — where she now serves as the University Chaplain after being appointed to the position in January — are decorated with a pink flamingo and her bookshelves are lined with copies of Jewish and spirituality-related texts. 

Saltiel became interested in religious communities while growing up in the Jewish community of Albany, New York, one of several places she grew up in. She was involved in a Jewish youth group, did Israeli folk dance and attended a Jewish summer camp. As the descendant of both Holocaust survivors and Sephardic Jews who survived the Spanish Inquisition, Saltiel said that the importance of inheritance is a key factor in her embrace of Judaism. 

When Saltiel began her undergraduate degree at Johns Hopkins University, she became involved in her campus Hillel chapter. 

“Hillel is where I first encountered pluralistic Judaism -– everything that comes with the intrafaith hard work of what it means to be together and build community. Interfaith work is hard, intrafaith work is harder,” she said. Saltiel noted that the community-building work she learned at Hopkins Hillel informs her chaplaincy today. 

While at Hopkins, Saltiel also studied international relations and psychology. She was interested in diplomacy and peace-building work but said that she realized she did not want to be a politician.

 “What really spoke to me was third track diplomacy of working with communities,” she said. 

Around that time, she discovered the Hopkins Interfaith Center, where she met Sharon Kugler, who came to Yale in 2007 as the University chaplain and was the first woman and Roman Catholic individual to hold the position. Kugler mentored Saltiel during her time at Hopkins and later hired her to work in the Chaplain’s Office at Yale in 2013. 

Kugler recalled hosting suppers at Hopkins where students would present about their faith traditions and said that Saltiel helped to run these events through the Interfaith Center. 

“She was usually the first to arrive and the last to leave. She understood how to create a space that was hospitable and warm,” said Kugler. “What was clear to me was the heart she had for creating spaces for conversation and connection with people. She lit up when she was part of the programs that we were doing at Johns Hopkins.” 

After determining she was interested in interfaith work and community chaplaincy, Saltiel taught 4th grade in the Bronx and worked at the Johns Hopkins Interfaith Center before continuing her education at Harvard Divinity School. 

“Harvard is a very pluralistic divinity school. It was asking the questions I was interested in: How do we build communities across boundaries? How do we show up and support each other? How do we be authentically who we are?” she said of her decision to attend HDS.

In her time in divinity school, Saltiel traveled to India to do peace-building work, worked in Brown University’s chaplaincy and did hospital chaplaincy at the Yale-New Haven Hospital. Upon graduation, she worked as the Repair the World Coordinator at the Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn, Saltiel also did interfaith work, taking a group of students to Rwanda as well as working with an organization of Black and Jewish students to travel to the American South to talk about the civil rights movement. In 2013, she came to Yale to work in the Chaplain’s Office.

History of the Chaplain’s Office at Yale 

After the daily chapel requirement was lifted in 1926, Yale’s first chaplain, Elmore McKee, was hired in 1927. McKee was elected by a council of New Haven pastors to be the first full-time pastor of the Church of Christ at Yale University, as well as the University Chaplain. Since then, the chaplaincy has grown to accompany an influx of students of diverse religious backgrounds. Currently, there are seven chaplains at the Chaplain’s Office and over 25 people working on the Yale Religious Ministries council.

“I’ve always been the round peg in a square hole,” Saltiel said of becoming the first Jewish chaplain at a university where attending chapel was once compulsory.  

Even within the Jewish community, Saltiel explained, she has not taken the most conventional path to chaplaincy, as she chose not to go to rabbinical school. 

Kugler recalled once meeting a group of men from the class of 1950 when she first came to Yale. Kugler said to them that she could only hope that chaplaincy could grow to reflect the world, which, Kugler said, is not only the white Protestant one that some previous chaplains represented. 

“I could not be prouder of what Yale’s doing now with this next chapter of the University chaplaincy. Maytal being the first Jewish woman at the helm of this is powerful,” Kugler noted.

Saltiel said she felt humbled and said that she would not be here today without all of the people who came before her. She described herself as “standing on the shoulders of giants” and expressed pride at realizing the dreams of her ancestors.

Working in the Chaplain’s Office at Yale 

Since coming to Yale in 2013, Saltiel has been known for her obsession with pink flamingos. In 2021, returning to campus during the pandemic, Saltiel said she remembered feeling like there needed to be more joy on campus. She blew up pink flamingos, tagged them with the phrase “Embrace whimsy, take me with you,” and spread them around Cross Campus. 

“People took a pink flamingo and went to class at the law school or put them in their windows. I wanted people to understand that we need to be joyful creatures…There is so much more to your being,” she said. 

The Chaplain’s Office is not only there for students in times of joy, but also in times of grief, she noted. Along with Muslim Chaplain Omer Bajwa, Saltiel co-taught a class on university chaplaincy at the Divinity School this fall — one which Kugler pioneered. As they were teaching the course in the fall, both Muslim and Jewish communities in particular, they said, were experiencing a period of immense grief with the start of the Israel-Hamas War. 

Bajwa said that in their class, he and Saltiel tried to create a strong sense of community while also responding to calls for help from every corner of the University.

In their work with students, the Chaplain’s Office facilitates an Interfaith Forum at Yale where Saltiel interacts with students weekly to build community across different faith identities. She emphasized the importance of welcoming strangers and seeing the “divine spark” in students “of all faiths or no faith.” 

Saltiel described her approach to welcoming people who come into her office as treating them with “radical hospitality.” Her goal, she said, is always to make sure everyone feels welcome and comfortable. 

Lydia Monk ’24, who has been attending the Interfaith Forum at Yale since her first year, described it as a thought-provoking environment.

“College is a really emotionally and experientially rich time, and IFFY is an intentional space to slow down and reflect. What I love most about IFFY is the time we spend in silence, just thinking together about the questions we ask each week. I love that IFFY is somewhat self-contained, while the reflections definitely leave with people, there’s not some goal of producing something or trying to get anyone to respond,” she wrote to the News. 

Stepping into the new role

After being at Yale for a decade, Saltiel has seen many eras of the Yale chaplaincy. She said that she aims to continue the chaplaincy’s work of accepting different faiths and growing its scope.

In terms of practical goals, Saltiel said she hopes to move the Chaplain’s Office out of the basement of Bingham Hall and into a bigger space that is more accessible to every member of the Yale community. Kugler and Bajwa also echoed this sentiment.

“I want our chaplaincy to continue to be nimble to the needs of the community. I want us to be a place that continues to love people exactly as they are,” she said.“Being a chaplain is about showing up and helping students find their voice. It’s about our community.” 

The Chaplain’s Office is located in the basement of Bingham Hall Entryway D on Old Campus.

Ada Perlman covers religious life at Yale. She is a first year in Pierson College.