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Gay Synagogue Celebrates Rabbi Kleinbaum’s 20th Anniversary

by Winnie McCroy
EDGE Editor
Thursday Dec 6, 2012

Since 1973, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah has been a refuge for New York City's LGBT Jewish community and their allies. And for the past 20 years, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum has headed the congregation.

On Dec. 9 at John Jay College, an estimated 600 people will celebrate her tenure with a special event featuring New York Magazine's Frank Rich and actress Cynthia Nixon. The celebrations of the rabbi's anniversary have already raised $1.1 million for CBST's capital campaign for a new dedicated synagogue at 130 W. 30th St.

"Rabbi Kleinbaum was hired by the lay leadership of CBST at a time when the AIDS epidemic was flaring, and our members were suffering and dying of AIDS. We needed a full-time clergy to help us deal with this crisis," commented CBST Board President William Hibsher. "My then-partner was also dying of AIDS, and she was very much a pastoral clergy to us. She does that exceedingly well, but what sets her apart is that she has a very intelligent irreverence, and is respectful of people's conflicting views and welcomes them to CBST, regardless of their beliefs system."

Hibsher, who attended the installation of Rabbi Kleinbaum on Sept. 11, 1992, said that during her tenure there, she helped welcome Orthodox and Reform Jews, straight congregants and some who are not even Jewish.

"She really expanded the tent, and at a time when all other progressive synagogues are contracting, CBST's membership is exploding," said Hibsher. "It's why magazines like Newsweek count her as one of the twenty most prominent rabbis in the country. She has driven the conversation about inclusiveness in religion, and has been a progressive voice in response to the Religious Right."

Kleinbaum has used her pulpit to speak out against bigotry and is often featured as a counterpoint in the mass media to anti-gay rhetoric spouted by other religious figures. She has also been a leader in the marriage equality movement, spoken out against teen LGBT homelessness and has had an enormous impact on what happens in other synagogues.

Under her tutelage, Rabbi Ayelet Cohen was instrumental in changing the conservative movement's policies toward LGBT students.

"At the time, the policy of the school and the conservative movement was not to permit openly gay and lesbian students to become rabbis or cantors," Cohen told EDGE. "CBST had always been a safe haven, but at my ordination when I was offered a full-time position there, the Rabbinical Assembly threatened to expel me for taking the job."

Cohen said that CBST and Kleinbaum remained steadfastly supportive of her. At a time when other congregations prohibited it, CBST had been officiating at the weddings of same-sex Jewish couples for over a decade.

Because of the widespread attention this situation garnered, the Conservative movement reconsidered the question and status of the LGBT movement, and eventually changed its policy on ordination of LGBT rabbis.

"She’s been a leading voice throughout her career," Cohen said of Kleinbaum. "Even as a student, she was challenging the mainstream Jewish world to be aware of and transform their attitudes toward LGBT people, and was an early activist on AIDS, making sure we were providing support and services. Twenty years ago when she came to CBST, most mainstream synagogues wouldn’t even say the word ’gay.’ They had no idea even how to have a conversation about including LGBT families. Now the vast majority of progressive, Reform and Reconstructionist congregations have completely transformed their treatment of queer families."

Kleinbaum’s habit of challenging boundaries wasn’t reserved for her adversaries. Assistant Rabbi Rachel Weiss said that Kleinbaum’s strength was her skills as a leader and challenging mentor.

"One of the things that makes her an effective, powerful leader is that she is not afraid to push people into places they are not sure they can go yet," said Weiss. "She encouraged me to try new things, pushed me to officiate at an event for the first time, or lead different rituals I’d never done before, and it is a trial by fire. But for many of us, it is very powerful and motivating to have a leader who is willing to step out into unknown waters and say, ’This is where we need to go; follow me.’"

Cohen also mentioned Kleinbaum’s strength as a mentor. "She wants the people she’s training to shine, and she’s an incredibly supportive mentor in that sense," said Cohen. "She is deeply committed to sharing the spotlight with her students and colleagues, because she knows that is what will ultimately strengthen our community. As a feminist rabbi and teacher, that’s an important part of what she models in the universe."

CBST To Break Ground on New Home

As EDGE reported, CBST plans to relocate to a new home in Midtown Manhattan. The Cass Gilbert-designed building will give CBST 17,000 square feet with a two-storefront-wide entryway. The congregation bought the building, but is still working to meet the $17 million in funding for its capital campaign.

"We are going to break ground next year and open in 2014, and I think the new building will be transforming, attracting new members of many stripes," said Hibsher. "We will now have a prominence that gay Jews were afraid to assert when CBST was founded 40 years ago."

Currently, CBST functions in ad hoc interior loft offices at Bethune Street in Greenwich Village. It does not have a street presence, and has become too small for the growing congregation. The congregation has been holding weekly services in an Episcopal Church in Chelsea, and renting out the Jacob Javits Convention Center for the High Holidays, which draws about 4,000 worshippers.

Hibsher was among many to speak of CBST’s growing children’s programs. Hibsher noted that during the High Holidays, about 200 kids particpate. He spoke proudly about their "innovative religious programming for children that captures the imagination of young people," adding that the additional space will be "a shot in the arm for our social justice program, among other things."

Weiss was an intern in this program when she served at CBST from 2006 to 2008. After a short time, she returned to the congregation in August 2010, and has worked hard to grow the adult B’nai Mitzvah program and children’s Jewish education. A mother herself (Weiss lives in Brooklyn with her partner, Julia Tauber and their daughter, Hannah), Weiss is uniquely suited to teach CBST’s growing population.

"We are a dynamic, urban, large synagogue, and historically LGBT has been our identity, and so we were not a community that inherently had children at the beginning," said Weiss. "But now we have growing families, and people want to give their children a good education. I treat kids’ education similar to adults’, not with a broad overview but by really helping them engage in real issues and questions on an age-appropriate level. These kids are growing up in a world of complex ideas and families, and they have a whole identity open to them, just like adults."

Weiss said that there was never a question that her family and her job would be intertwined, although she admitted that, "it is a challenge to be a full-time rabbi and a full-time parent."

She was excited about CBST’s new home. "It represents a whole new chapter in CBST’s life," she said, "a new neighborhood and really new possibilities for expanding our programming and populations."

For Cohen, the new synagogue on West 30th Street is a homecoming, bringing the inclusive congregation into a space that matches their mission.

"Part of it is having a home that more appropriately matches the identity of our synagogue, that is proudly and openly present, a home base and a locus for activism and community that people all over the city and far beyond are looking for," Cohen said. "It will be wonderful to finally have a home that will accommodate and reflect that."

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Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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