NEW YORK – Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of New York City’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah had been in rabbinical school for less than a year when she attended a secret conference of gay and lesbian rabbinical and cantorial students and rabbis in Los Angeles in 1986 where attendees had to call a phone number once they landed to find out where the gathering was taking place. The Reconstructionist Jewish movement adopted a non-discrimination policy two years earlier, but the Reform and Conservative traditions still prohibited gay rabbinical students.
They faced potential expulsion over their sexual orientation.
“I was in the first class that was admitted under that  policy,” Kleinbaum told the Washington Blade in a recent interview, noting her own tradition remained hostile to openly LGBT rabbinical students and gay issues in general. “It was all pretty cutting edge. We were all testing the waters. It was a very different time, so we were all figuring out how to both transform the Jewish community internally and the liberal Jewish community was no different.”
Kleinbaum spoke to the Blade shortly after she celebrated her 20th anniversary at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the country’s largest LGBT synagogue with 1,100 members that first held services at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood in 1973. The congregation has since returned to the same Episcopal parish to conduct their Friday night services because it has outgrown its previous location in the West Village.
AIDS was ravaging Congregation Beit Simchat Torah when she became its first full-time senior rabbi in Aug. 1992.
“We just had funerals constantly,” said Kleinbaum, who was director of congregational relations at the Religious Action Center in D.C. from 1990 until she arrived at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. “I came to CBST and it was in the midst of an epidemic that was being largely ignored by the religious community and certainly by the government. So we were really under siege in those days.”
Roughly one third of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah’s members lost their battle with AIDS, while Kleinbaum said up to 75 percent of her male congregants were living with HIV. She also buried the synagogue’s president who had supported the hiring of a full-time rabbi a month after she arrived at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah.
“The primary motivation for having a rabbi come into the congregation was to respond to this crisis of AIDS. And it was a spiritual crisis that the synagogue was really reeling from the death and the illness and there was no end in sight of course at that time,” said Kleinbaum, who further noted that anti-AIDS stigma at the time only exacerbated the plight of those in the congregation living with the virus. “Religion was used constantly as ammunition, as a weapon against us and against people who were HIV-positive or had AIDS. So my presence to try and project a different image of God and of religion was very important both pastorally and politically.”
Activism extends beyond HIV, LGBT rights
In addition to her HIV/AIDS advocacy, Kleinbaum has publicly backed marriage rights for same-sex couples and other LGBT-specific issues. New York police arrested her and then-National Gay and Lesbian Task Force executive director Matt Foreman during a 2007 protest against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” when they obstructed traffic in Times Square.
Kleinbaum was among the New York Board of Rabbi members taken into custody for civil disobedience during a protest against the 1999 police shooting of unarmed West African immigrant Amadou Diallo in the Bronx. More recently, she has spoken out against the New York Police Department’s controversial stop and frisk policy that critics maintain unfairly targets black and Latinos and other underrepresented groups.
“If we want a country to change and a world to change we have to be deeply in partnership and see our fight and struggle for human rights — it’s not just about who I am as a person literally. This I take from my Jewish tradition,” said Kleinbaum. “We are told over and over and over and over again, remember that you were slaves once in Egypt, therefore make sure you do everything you can to prevent the oppression of anyone else. No one else should be a slave.”
Kleinbaum remained humble when the Blade asked her about those who have identified her as among New York’s most influential Jewish leaders and one of the country’s most important rabbis.
“It’s wonderful to be recognized in that way if it helps also continuing our effort to transform the world,” she said. “I have one agenda; and that’s to transform the world. And I feel that only happens when people are really working hard together.”
Over the last two decades, the congregation’s High Holiday services at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center have grown to include more than 4,000 people each year. Congregation Beit Simchat Torah also hopes to move into a new building on West 30th Street in Manhattan in 2014.
Judaism itself has changed since Kleinbaum attended rabbinical school in the mid-1980s.
The Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements all admit openly gay rabbinical students and place them in synagogues and other congregational positions. These traditions also recognize same-sex weddings.
“These years since I started rabbinical school have been totally transformative and so it’s been very moving to be part of that,” said Kleinbaum.
As for Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, Kleinbaum said she hopes to further develop its social justice work over the next decade. She would also like to create what she described as an institute that examines the intersection of sexuality and religion.
“The intersection of sexuality and religion is a source of tremendous oppression in the world,” said Kleinbaum. “I’d like to create an institute which focuses on ways that religion can be a voice of liberation in areas of sexuality and religion.”