Age is just a number



January 23, 2019

“You’re the Jewish leaders of tomorrow.”

The phrase, commonly uttered in Jewish spaces, has struck a nerve with many millennials (ages 22 to 37), who feel they’re already leaders in the Jewish world.

At 27, Rabbi Rachel Rubenstein isn’t waiting for some distant tomorrow.

She began her tenure as executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orange County in September, just four months after she was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Rabbi Rubenstein is one of the youngest executives in the Federation system, which has 147 affiliates stretching from coast to coast.

“I was initially concerned that people would think that I was too young for the job,” she said. “But I’ve been very pleasantly surprised — my board members and community have really embraced my leadership, and are excited that with my youth also comes a different perspective and a different understanding of things like social media and technology.”

As a leading Jewish professional, Rabbi Rubenstein is committed to engaging young families in Orange County. After the last Jewish preschool in the area shut its doors, she introduced a monthly program for parents and their children. To combat anti-Semitism, she has partnered with school officials to bring anti-bias education and Holocaust education trainings to the classroom.

The millennial rabbi developed a spark for building Jewish community at a young age, strengthened by her years attending Jewish day school. That spark ignited at Washington University in St. Louis Hillel.

“From the beginning, Hillel was my home,” she said. “I went that very first Shabbat of my freshman year, and I never left.”

Rabbi Rubenstein has fond memories of WashU Hillel, a cozy refuge from the hustle and bustle of college life. She celebrated Shabbat every week by participating in student-led services and enjoying hot, kosher meals. Hours after most students said their goodbyes, a few stragglers remained, including Rabbi Rubenstein. They lounged on couches while playing card games and noshing on desserts.

On weekdays, Rabbi Rubenstein could be found in the WashU Hillel kitchen, her hands caked in flour as she kneaded challot for Challah for Hunger. Or she could be found at a nearby table working on projects for her development internship, supervised by a WashU Hillel professional.

When Rabbi Rubenstein wasn’t spending time at WashU Hillel, she focused on her education.

As a young student, she assumed her degree in political science and international studies would lay the groundwork for a career in politics. While studying abroad in Morocco, Rabbi Rubenstein began to question her aspirations, wondering if she would find long-term fulfillment in the political realm.

“I thought, ‘What is it that really fulfills me?’ It was having meaningful conversations with people — what they love, what they’re afraid of, what drives them,” she said. “When I looked back on my own life, I realized that I always had those conversations with my rabbis.”

After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis, Rabbi Rubenstein decided to turn her long-time passion for Judaism into her full-time career.

Rabbi Rubenstein said her experience at WashU Hillel prepared her to engage the Jewish community in New York State. She remembered the integral relationship between donor cultivation and successful nonprofits, something she learned during her development internship. She recalled how Rayna Shoihat, former student life coordinator, balanced the roles of professional and friend. She remembered how Rabbi Andrew Kastner, former campus rabbi, taught her the value of coffee dates.

Rabbi Rubenstein hopes to continue reaching the young families in New York State by developing leadership opportunities catered to their interests.

“To creatively engage our community, we have to connect with people on their level,” she said. “When we understand their passions, we can help them become the leaders they want to be and help them fulfill the vision of how they see themselves in the Jewish community.”