October 17, 2012 | by Michael K. Lavers
New York rabbi celebrates 20 years at LGBT synagogue
Gay News, Washington Blade, Gay Judaism, Gay New York

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum and then-National Gay and Lesbian Task Force executive director Matt Foreman protest “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in Times Square in 2007 (Photo courtesy of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah)

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 [1984] 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.”

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

15 Comments
  • When the Southern Women's Music and Comedy Festival were not allowed back (after 8 years) at the Union of American Congregations Camp Coleman in Georgia, Rabbi Kleinbaum was working in a very high position at UAHC. We had spent 9 years at Camp Coleman, from the mid 1980's to the mid 1990's. The Camp Director who was there when we first rented, really worked well with us. (We all thought he was gay). We spent years fixing the camp where ever we could (old electrical equipment was replaced etc.) When the Camp Director was replaced, a homophobic Director came to work there. He did not want 'dykes' at his camp. We were sent a letter from the UAHC headquarters that there were too many women on the land. (Actually, the festival had dropped from 2000 to 1200 when we got the letter.) The ACLU and NOW tried to help us stay there. When I spoke to Rabbi Kleinbaum her exact words were 'This is the UAHC's decision and there is nothing I can do.) So, the first and largest lesbian festival in the South was thrown out while Kleinbaum did nothing, nothing, nothing. We found another camp but our numbers dropped and I just couldn't fight any more. So now, Rabbi Kleinbaum is a respected 'hero' in our movement. Well Sharon, you turned your back on us because you did not want to upset your position in the organization and never bothered to apologize. UAHC is now 'pro LGBT'. But we have never been back to Camp Coleman. You see, the 300 person rule is still in place. I will never forget my conversation (which was much longer then I have written here) with this Rabbi. The bottom line is that she protected her position by allowing them to discriminate.

    • Thank you for telling the story. that takes courage.

    • Thank you for telling the story. that takes courage.

    • Robin, this is a great article. I,too, mourn the loss of Camp Coleman. Many of us made lifelong friends there. I can only hope, and from reading the article, assume she had evolved over the last 2 decades. I know I sure have. I am nowhere near the same young woman who first entered that camp. I like to believe life has taught me many valuable lessons and things I held true at that point i have now discarded. I hope Rabbi Kleinbaum has also and that she would, indeed, issue an apology for not standing up for us.

      • The difference between you and the Rabbi Tina, is that this was your first steps ‘out’ and you were terrific. The Rabbi had a very powerful position and protected her job rather then us. I am Jewish and after the Holocaust, we all swore ‘Never Again.’ Yet, she stood by and by allowing UAHC to discriminate, and by not getting involved, she broke her oath as a Rabbi, a Jew, and certainly, her loyalty to her own community. So I am not quite as forgiving. It is not enough to say ‘I am sorry.’ It will only be enough when the Southern Women’s Music & Comedy that I produced is allowed back at Camp Coleman. I would go back there one last time and produce a Festival just to put what happened to us to rest. It isn’t about ‘just us.’ It is about justice.

    • As I posted on festival page…I remember looking forward to that camp every year, it made us all happy to know in just a few months after west coast, we would see everyone at Southern.
      I also remember the staff loving us! As trouble shooter I was always with the camps staff, we even had codes to meet up with one another for some real southern cooking…I was always answering!
      All that said, the Rabbi was pretty powerful, and Aids and the "men's" issues, seem to be her path and didn't take much interests in Lesbian or Women's issues. I have always had difficulty in recognizing what was more important…the Power, or the Vision, to those fight for change. The big deal on all of us was to fight for HIV services, etc…not much fame or attention or $$ in rights of women or women identified projects! Glad for success, hope Tina is right and has a broader scope.

    • I'm sorry that this woman didn't have the courage and the integrity to stand up – I hope she's not taking any bows for this… I remember entertaining at the Southern Festival and it was terrific – except for the scorpions everywhere…. it seems that people are really trying hard to make discrimination ok…. it's not ok and we have to keep fighting – even if it's against our "own" who are afraid to take a stand.

    • not to excuse her but she was very very young at the time and perhaps not as brave to make waves. I had no idea she was part of the demise of the festivals.

    • I missed the first year at Southern, but I was there from 1985 until it folded. I had always had a reputation for being "aloof, stand-offish, and withdrawn" but at Southern that year I made lifelong friends. I still miss it.

    • Evie Litwok I am a member of CBST and my Rabbi is Sharon Kleinbaum. She is an amazing spiritual leader and has an impressive list of accomplishments. We, the LGBT community, have so many important battles to fight. Can I ask you to delete this post and to keep our community battles private?

      • No Evie, I will not delete the post. We never received an apology from Rabbi Kleinbaum. Although I understand she has an impressive list of accomplishments, the battle we fought to start and maintain a lesbian festival which organized thousands of women in the South took enormous courage as we were right in the middle of Klan Country. Eleanor Smeal, Rita Mae Brown, Melissa Ethridge and countless other political leaders, entertainers and workshop presenters appeared there. Thousands of lesbians who had never been out of the closet took part and it was an organizing tool not just for our community, but taught outreach and how to help battered women, women in poverty, marches on Washington, etc. etc. This was such an important part of our history, that I am not going to sweep what happened to us being thrown out of Camp Coleman under the carpet. When you refer to ‘so many important battles to fight’, think of those who did this decades ago in the deep South? We as both lesbians and women will never accept the injustice and not speak up about it. The total lack of support from Rabbi Kleinbaum is something she needs to attempt to clean up. This is not just a small ‘community’ battle. As a proud Jewish lesbian, I expect more from UAHC and Sharon. She is certainly welcome to contact me, and so is UAHC. I would be more then happy to have my Rabbi, Rabbi Denise Eger, mediate. Until we walk back on the land at Camp Coleman and are able to hold a final festival to make up for the discrimination, I nor other women will not be silenced.

    • The loss of the SWM&CFestival was a loss to hundreds and hundreds of women, during a time when for many, this place was the only safe place for us. That is not a private battle.

    • Andie, this culture is not one that draws female Rabbis who are "not as brave to make waves"… and Evie, I don't understand how ignoring the past will guide us to fight the battles of today in the right direction… do you?

  • Usually I don’t learn post on blogs, but I wish to say that this write-up very forced me to check out and do so! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thanks, very nice article.

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