“CBST represents much of what is best about American Judaism—even if America doesn’t know it yet,” Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum said in 1992, when she was installed as the leader of New York City’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. Last night, at a special event honoring Kleinbaum for her 20 years of service to CBST—now the world’s largest LGBT synagogue—hundreds of people, if not America writ large, seemed, finally, to know it.
Kleinbaum, who made Newsweek’s list of “America’s Top 50 Rabbis” and its list of “150 Women Who Shake The World” this year, is an openly lesbian rabbi whose background spans the gamut of religious affiliations: Raised in a Conservative synagogue, she attended the Orthodox Frisch Yeshiva High School, worked for the Reform movement, and received ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. A leading social justice activist, she has fought for marriage equality, testified before Congress, and advocated for women, African Americans, LGBTQ people, immigrants, and Palestinians. When same-sex marriage was legalized in New York, she performed ten marriages in a single day.
Kleinbaum joined CBST at the height of the AIDS crisis, when the congregation lost 25 to 30 percent of its male members and the disease served as a rallying point for the Jewish community. Reflecting on the gulf between that devastating period and today, the rabbi said, “In these 20 years, we’ve gone from a place where AIDS was the organizational principle of our lives to [a place where] many young people don’t even know what a T-cell count is.” She worried that the Jewish community—now relatively insulated from AIDS—has become complacent about the disease and the very real threat it still represents, particularly to low-income and black populations in New York. “It was easier when the enemy was Ronald Reagan. Now that we have the tools, now that we’ve figured out a thing or two about power, how are we going to help those who are not doing as well?”
Refusing to be made redundant by its own success, CBST remains an outward-looking community, advocating for the human rights of Jews and gentiles alike. Kleinbaum, who has publicly criticized Israeli policy toward Palestinians, noted that CBST has taken six congregational trips to Israel and Palestine. These trips have emphasized Israel’s social justice challenges and have included meetings with Palestinians in the West Bank as well as Israel’s Ethiopian and Bedouin populations.
This itinerary reflects a crucial difference between mainstream American synagogue missions to Israel and the missions of LGBT synagogues: Whereas mainstream congregations focus on touring holy sites, encouraging solidarity, and advocating for Israeli policy, LGBT congregations—themselves painfully aware of what it means to be part of a vulnerable, marginalized population—focus on civil rights abuses.
LGBT congregations’ relationship with Israel is complicated by that country’s effort to highlight its progressive stance on gay rights in order to burnish its international image—a strategy known as pinkwashing. The tension between wanting to laud Israel for its gay-friendly culture and criticize it for its treatment of Palestinians makes support for Israel a point of contention at synagogues like CBST, where the congregants—whose views range from Zionist to anti-Zionist—meet regularly to debate these issues.
Kleinbaum, for her part, is not afraid to eschew the pro-Israel party line in favor of a more complex appraisal that includes dissenting voices. Last year, she supported the LGBT Community Center’s controversial decision to lease space to Queers Against Israeli Apartheid. “The community center should be a place where all different points of view in the gay community have a chance to be heard,” she told the Forward. “I’m against censorship. I believe in the power of ideas to be debated openly and vigorously.”
That Kleinbaum takes heat for this approach—even at a synagogue like CBST—was obvious from last night’s event. The rabbi said her congregants often remind her that, while it’s good for her to be critical, she should also express love and support for Israel. “And I do love and support the state of Israel,” Kleinbaum noted, carefully performing the delicate act of congregational tightrope-walking so often required of today’s American Jewish leaders.
It’s this same knack for accommodating a wide range of viewpoints that, one imagines, has enabled Kleinbaum to build such a successful congregation. “Rabbi Kleinbaum has created a space for Jewish queers,” author Kate Bornstein said in a video tribute last night, gratefully acknowledging the rabbi’s willingness to include those who reject the gender binary and identify as queer rather than as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
But this, Kleinbaum reminded the audience, took time. “I didn’t even use the word transgender 20 years ago—I barely used the word bisexual,” she noted, adding that in the past two decades she has seen “the explosion of queer as an identity.”
CBST went from being the gay synagogue, to the gay and lesbian synagogue, to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender synagogue, to a synagogue that also strives to include those who identify as queer, intersex, and, yes, straight.
Inclusivity is key to Kleinbaum, who declared 20 years ago that “I don’t believe in a God who cares whether or not we believe in God” but in a God who cares whether or not we’re making the world a more just place. Last night, she reiterated that position, stating, “Religion, at its best, can give people great energy to do political work.” If the loud applause that followed was any indication, CBST is doing just that.