Rabbi Yonah Bookstein knows how to excite Jewish youth. He’s been the guiding light behind the annual Jewlicious Festivals in Long Beach, which bring together youth from all denominations to celebrate their spirituality with raucous concerts mixed with some serious learning; he’s been a highly popular campus rabbi at Cal State University Long Beach Hillel, and now, he’s just moved to Los Angeles to head up JconnectLA, which presents social events for young Jews. Bookstein (or Rabbi Yo, as he’s known to his followers) and his wife Rachel have also worked hard on behalf of Jews living in Poland. He talked with The Journal recently about what being a rabbi at JconnectLA means to him.
Jewish Journal: It’s no secret that JconnectLA is primarily a social organization. What’s a rabbi doing there?
Rabbi Yonah Bookstein: I am not a typical rabbi. I see myself available to any young Jew who doesn’t have a rabbi, whatever their denomination or background. I feel, personally, that we have a desire to connect with other Jews and to connect with Jewish things. I don’t mean bagels and lox, I mean something deeper than that. I see my role as helping Jewish people connect.
JJ: Why is JconnectLA important to the Los Angeles community?
YB: The statistics show that young Jews in Los Angeles are one of the most unaffiliated groups of young Jews in the country. In L.A. there are more than 10,000 people who have been on Birthright, and those are old statistics. You’re talking thousands of Jews in L.A., and most of them are not connected to a synagogue or to Jewish groups. Hopefully they have some Jewish friends, but I think that for young Jews to really fulfill themselves they can have a great time connecting with other Jews.
JJ: Why should people come to JconnectLA instead of going to synagogue?
YB: We aren’t trying to replace synagogues. We are trying to be a place where people can come together and expand their Jewish horizons socially and culturally. JconnectLA is a place where people who don’t have a home in the Jewish community are accepted and feel at home. The Jewish Federation has done a study where they invested thousands of dollars into trying to figure out how to keep the next generation of Jews Jewish. Before JconnectLA started, young Jews in L.A. didn’t have so many options of stuff to do, and they didn’t want to go to a synagogue for a mixer.
JJ: You have been working with young Jews for a number of years, first at a college campus and now with young professionals. How would you characterize the current generation?
YB: Young professionals in L.A. are looking for a meaningful Jewish experience, but on their own terms. Whereas, sometimes I felt college students would put being Jewish as maybe the last thing on their agenda, young professionals are looking back to see what’s in the Jewish community for them, and the unfortunate thing is that there’s not very much. They want to carve out something new for themselves — a customized Jewish identity.
JJ: You work with Jews at an age when most of them are dating or looking to marry. You and your wife have been open about the fact that you were shomer negiyah [halachically observant, including not touching] before you were married. How do you reconcile your Jewish values about dating with the reality of raging hormones?
YB: I want young Jews to meet, date, fall in love and get married. My favorite part of my job is doing weddings. I don’t tell people what to do unless they ask me for advice. I am not going to tell somebody who grew up Reform, don’t hug and kiss. They are going to look at me like I’m from Mars. What I like about my background is that I didn’t grow up Orthodox.
JJ: I have read that your wife, Rachel, shocked students at Long Beach when she was candid answering questions about sex. What’s the best relationship advice you have for people in their 20s and 30s?
YB: You know, it is interesting. When do people call rabbis? When someone dies or is getting married. Judaism is very sex positive, but also believes that sex is holy. To fulfill yourself sexually and to have a great sex life, you need to respect it. It is just like having self-respect. I see a lot of couples who are acting as husband and wife and haven’t really made a commitment to each other. When people have a commitment together they connect deeper and have a better intimate life.
JJ: What kind of impact do you hope JconnectLA has on the people involved?
YB: We want to be a unifying force in the Jewish community. If I had a vision, it would be that every young Jew in L.A. is connected to something Jewish. You don’t have to leave your Jewish star at the door. You could live an exciting, fun life and live an exciting, fun Jewish life as well. They’re not a contradiction.
JJ: Is there anything else you want to add?
YB: My home is going to be open to people for events and Shabbat dinners. I am available 24/6 online through instant messaging, Facebook and my blogs. I look forward to connecting with as many young Jews as I can in Los Angeles. I’m really excited.