“I’m actually quite a shy person,” admits Rebbetzin Gina Goldstein, wife of South Africa’s chief rabbi, Rabbi Warren Goldstein. “I’m content to be in the background behind my not-so-shy husband.” Briefly, I wonder how we’ll manage this interview. After all, I’m a little nervous about speaking with the Rebbetzin of South Africa. Luckily, when Rebbetzin Goldstein begins sharing her thoughts, our anxieties fade away.
The Stage is Set
Rebbetzin Goldstein grew up in Johannesburg, the second of six sisters – a large family being an anomaly in their community. The girls attended the King David Victory Park School, a school affiliated with Orthodoxy. “Like much of South African Jewry, most of the families who sent their children there identified with Orthodoxy, but weren’t religiously observant,” says Rebbetzin Goldstein. “Initially, my family was no different.” By the time Gina had entered high school, however, her family had become one of the few religiously-observant families in the area. “Since we weren’t allowed to go out on Shabbos, our home became a magnetic social center,” she says. Growing up while straddling two worlds must have had its challenges, but Rebbetzin Goldstein took what could have been a disadvantage and turned it into an advantage: “Thanks to my childhood, I can identify with all sorts of Jews,” she says, “and I can understand their attraction to their Jewish identity.” For Rebbetzin Goldstein, disadvantages are simply advantages in disguise.
On Being a Rebbetzin
At thirty-two years of age, Rabbi Warren Goldstein was the youngest person ever to be appointed to the post of chief rabbi. “We realized that we were in an unusual position,” says the Rebbetzin. “When my husband was inaugurated in 2005, we were both very young: I was only twenty-nine; our oldest children were eight and six, and we were still building our family.” Realizing that the children might view growing up as the chief rabbi’s children as a disadvantage, the Goldsteins developed a two-pronged approach: regular family time and inclusion in unique experiences. “Almost every night my husband is home for a family dinner, homework, bath time and bedtime. He often says that reading bedtime stories to the younger children is the most enjoyable part of his day!” And with plenty of family within walking distance, extended family relationships are continually polished.
“By including our children in the experiences and fun that come with the role, we hoped to offset the responsibility,” shares the Rebbetzin. A little over a year ago, when the Goldsteins were invited to Los Angeles, they decided to trade in their two business-class tickets for six economy class tickets. “The children enjoyed the experience and, best of all, missed about ten days of school.” Once again, a disadvantage was crafted into an advantage.
Naturally, the Goldsteins have had the chance to meet many of today’s news makers. “When my husband delivered prayers at former-President Thabo Mbeki’s inauguration in April 2004, the president picked up the most quiet and shy of my kids, who was five or six at the time, and sat him on his lap!” recalls Rebbetzin Goldstein. While not all encounters are quite as close, the children have also met President Jacob Zuma and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphos as well as other politicians at ANC government rallies where Rabbi Goldstein has delivered prayers for the country. “Perhaps the children couldn’t always wear and say what they wanted to because they were expected ‘to produce the goods,’ but we wanted them to feel that the responsibility was a wonderful privilege.” Once again, a possible disadvantage was crafted into an advantage.
Growing into the role isn’t something only the four Goldstein children have had to do. “I’m not naturally comfortable being under public scrutiny,” admits Rebbetzin Goldstein. “I don’t always realize that people are watching and quoting me – it’s a self-awareness I need to develop.”