September 23, 2019

Rachel Bookstein: ‘We work better together’

Working on a college campus, Rachel Bookstein is constantly talking to students about sex. She has very strong opinions about it — as does her husband of 11 years. A self-declared “Torah-observant feminist,” Bookstein found the place where she thinks Judaism and feminism meet in the halachic concept of shomer negiah, which restricts physical contact.

“People are always surprised by what I say, because they expect the standard frum answer,” Bookstein, 35, says in reference to the many Cal State Long Beach students she counsels as director of Hillel, where her husband, Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, 38, is the campus rabbi. “Sometimes I’ll say things, and they’ll be totally shocked.”

She tells me about the Shabbat dinner, just after she and her husband became engaged, when their hands brushed under the table.

“It was so erotic!” she exclaims. “We had this moment, and it was really exciting — that future taste of what it would be like to be together uninhibited.”

For the Booksteins, partners in building the Long Beach Hillel community and the co-creators of the popular youth-oriented Jewlicious Festival, work and home are completely entwined. More than rabbi and rebbetzin, they serve as a model married couple for hundreds of Jewish students. Unlike many of Bookstein’s rebbetzin contemporaries, her journey as a powerfully identified Jewish woman began long before she married a rabbi. She studied feminism in college and has long struggled with how to live as an observant Jewish woman in the modern world.

Born in Northern California’s Marin County, Bookstein grew up in an academically and Jewishly engaged family, although not strictly observant. During her freshman year at UC Santa Cruz, she took a seminar on Jewish women, in which she had an epiphany.

“Everyone had to say their name and ‘I am a Jewish woman,'” Bookstein recalls. “That statement of identification was a moment where I started to think about ‘I am a Jewish woman, what does that mean?’ That was the moment when I decided to engage in Jewish life, text and community.”

She went from wanting to be a lawyer who would change the world to high-tailing it to Israel for her junior year. When she returned, she applied to a Jewish studies master’s degree program at Oxford University. She arrived with “a giant computer and two giant bags,” and when she stepped out of the car, a young man in a yarmulke and jeans asked if he could help carry her things.

When they began dating, Yonah was more observant, and she was still searching for her own path. They engaged in “traditional dating,” spending time together only in public, walking in parks, meeting in coffee shops. They talked on a pay phone twice a day, avoiding each other’s homes and any kind of physical relationship. Early on, Yonah was forthright about his intentions.

“He said, ‘I want you to know I think you’re amazing, and I really like you, but I am not looking for any more friends — I am dating for marriage,'” she recalls.

Bookstein was floored. She’d found the male feminist; the guy who was more interested in her personality than her physical expression. She also loved how Judaism values the institution of dating for marriage, where a woman doesn’t just give away her body.

“To connect in a nonverbal way is really powerful, but if deployed at the wrong time, can keep you in a bad relationship. We could have totally wrecked our relationship if we were too young and too intimate,” Bookstein says. Yet, she admits, “Not being together is really hard if you’re in love with someone.”

The couple met in October, met each other’s families in December, got engaged in February and married in June.

“We were totally certain and totally in love,” she says. “It was unimaginable to us that we wouldn’t want to be married. It was this totally obvious reality that ‘this is my soul mate; this is my life partner.’ My family raised me with enough self-confidence to make that decision.”

Once married, they did everything together: yeshiva in Israel, running the Ronald Lauder Foundation in Poland — he was the director; she the program director — and it was there that she gave birth to their first two children. When they left Poland, Yonah completed his smicha in Israel and then New York, and Rachel decided that his rabbinic journey would determine their geography. Eventually, a private philanthropist hired Yonah to be campus rabbi at Long Beach Hillel, and Rachel was recruited as Hillel director, which made their private and public lives one and the same.

“I can’t balance. I make informed choices,” Bookstein says about negotiating between work life and home life. “When my kids are sick and there are things I need to do at work, work gets put on hold.”

The greatest challenge they face as a couple is getting away from their work. With four young children, going on dates is nearly impossible, but nurturing their relationship is essential. Last year, they sat on the porch, lit candles and drank tea together.

“My greatest sadness is that I don’t have any friends,” she confesses.

She always has to be the rebbetzin, available to students if they want to have coffee or need advice, ready with an ample Shabbos table for constant guests and always astute enough to have something “intelligent, thoughtful and positive to say.” She also says she feels pressure to validate her work for the organizations she works for, the donors who support them and the students she and her husband devote their lives to teaching.

“Working with my husband, one thing I feel grateful about is that we both work better together than we do apart. When we work together, we are more of who we are, more than the sum of our parts,” Bookstein says. “We’re each other’s cheerleader, copy editor, best and worst critic and, because we are totally committed to each other, it gives us a lot of strength.”

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