October 13, 2019

Peni Bouskila: ‘I feel I belong, so I’m happy to help’

On their first date, Peni Bouskila’s future husband leaned in to kiss her, and she was shocked. “I can’t kiss you!” she exclaimed. “You’re going to be a rabbi!” Having grown up in a traditional religious community, kissing wasn’t exactly on par with separate seating, but she and Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, now the leader of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood, got over that quickly, they were so in love.

Some things about being a rabbi’s wife she expected:

“Our family is a family where everybody watches us; everybody wants to be part of our family. They want to know details about our kids, because they feel that they are their kids, too,” Bouskila explained. “My children know they are in the public eye, and they have to behave in a certain way, which means no running around, sit nicely, things I would have taught them anyway, I hope.”

Fifteen years ago, when her husband was hired as senior rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, she knew she was signing up for a life devoted to the synagogue — not necessarily because it was “expected” but because she came from a family that volunteers, and it is the Jewish thing to do. What she did not anticipate was that over time, even as the temple grew in membership and programming, its support staff has not expanded accordingly. Her husband needs her help, and so Bouskila’s role grew from some volunteering and socializing into a full-fledged job designing graphics for all temple brochures. But as the rabbi’s wife, she helps without being paid.

“It would make me feel a lot better, as I’m sitting there at 2 a.m. doing something for the synagogue, to know there was a check waiting for me,” Bouskila said of work she knows she could be paid for in the corporate world. But, she acknowledges, “It would look bad for us if I were to ask for compensation. If it was someone else volunteering, and my husband suggested to the board, ‘Let’s send them a check,’ that would be OK. It would be wrong for him to request something like that on my behalf, because my money is his money. It’d be like him asking for a raise.”

“I’ve been here for so many years, and I feel I belong, so I’m happy to help,” she added.

The community’s support and acceptance is too important, and she wouldn’t want to risk offending them, lest they think her ungrateful.

Initially, Bouskila harbored reservations about joining a large congregation. Her sister, who also is married to a rabbi, wound up in a community that was so unfairly demanding that the couple left and moved to Israel. Bouskila’s fears were assuaged when she met the community at Sephardic Temple and found them extremely warm and welcoming. They have embraced her children, in one instance helping her daughter raise $24,000 for Israeli children during the Second Lebanon War. When a relative was ill and Bouskila had to go out of town, the community cared for her family, brought them meals and opened their homes on Shabbat.

“When my kids were little, people would come up to me and say, ‘How’s my baby,’ ‘When are we going to have another child?’ — they really see our family as part of their family,” she said.

I first interviewed Bouskila one year ago, and she recently told me the position she created was filled by hired help — and then quickly vacated, which means she must resume the role she played before.

But like any politician’s spouse or doctor’s wife, sharing responsibilities without compensation comes with long hours and busy schedules.

“I don’t know many people who have 9-to-5 jobs and get home by 5:30 p.m. and have nothing to do all evening. Our lives are constantly busy, but I don’t have a problem because I think it’s very normal,” she said.

Bouskila admits the pressure of sustaining not just one family, but also more than a thousand, means time alone is rare.

“Working together has brought us close,” Bouskila said. “Unfortunately, we can’t spend long weekends together alone. We can’t just go out on dates in the evening because of the constraints of the job and the kids. The time we spend together, we spend doing things really important to us.”

What makes it easier, what makes it all worthwhile, is seeing herself and her husband as a team: “Working together is what makes our marriage stronger.”

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