New York’s New Firebrand Rabbi
For Sharon Kleinbaum—friend of Christine Quinn, partner to Randi Weingarten—the personal is political
Last winter, Sharon Kleinbaum, the firebrand rabbi of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah—the country’s largest and best-known gay synagogue—marked her 20th anniversary in the pulpit with a Hanukkah celebration headlined by the actress Cynthia Nixon, who has been active in gay-rights and a regular guest at the synagogue. The evening featured a panel with the political writer Frank Rich, a longtime congregant, and an appearance by Christine Quinn, New York’s City Council Speaker, who came to present Kleinbaum with an official city proclamation. “She is one of the favorite religious leaders in my household,” Quinn told the crowd. “I’ve never seen her at an event or at a function or on the street or wherever where she hasn’t gone out of her way to give me—you’d think she was a bear, that’s what you get from this little woman, I always get that hug.”
On cue, Kleinbaum dashed onstage and wrapped her arms around Quinn, New York’s first female and first openly gay political leader and currently the front-running candidate to succeed Michael Bloomberg as mayor. Then the rabbi turned and made her way back to her seat in the audience next to the other political powerhouse in the room: the labor leader Randi Weingarten, who is head of the American Federation of Teachers, a close friend of the Clintons, and Kleinbaum’s romantic partner. As she sat down, Kleinbaum gave Weingarten an exuberant kiss that was audible from the balcony of the crowded auditorium, at John Jay College near Lincoln Center.
Kleinbaum is hardly the only religious leader in New York who balances a public record of spirited demonstrations and arrests with serious insider pull; the Rev. Al Sharpton practically defines the form, and other Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Avi Weiss, have adopted the model as well. But this, in many ways, is Kleinbaum’s moment: a year in which many of the issues moving the city and the country—same-sex marriage, income inequality, civil liberties—are ones Kleinbaum has long made her own, and in which those closest to the rabbi are politically ascendant.
“They’re a power couple,” Ellen Lippmann, a fellow progressive political activist and rabbi of Brooklyn’s Kolot Chaiyenu synagogue, said of Kleinbaum and Weingarten. “I certainly think of Sharon as an activist in that public protest, getting arrested kind of way, but I tend to think of her much more as a player within the system.”
From the time she arrived in New York, in 1992, Kleinbaum has been wired into the city’s power structure. In 1993, during her first year at CBST, the congregation was infamously barred from marching in the annual Salute to Israel parade along Fifth Avenue; Kleinbaum responded by organizing a parallel celebration at Central Synagogue that drew then-Gov. Mario Cuomo along with both David Dinkins and Rudolph Giuliani, who were then in the midst of their own hotly contested mayoral race. Ed Koch, by then out of office, boycotted the parade altogether in solidarity with CBST. “Her arrival made a splash,” Arthur Leonard, a former CBST board member who co-chaired the search committee that chose Kleinbaum, told me.
The youngest of four children, Kleinbaum grew up in a politically progressive Conservative household in Rutherford, N.J., where her father—the son of Polish-born, Yiddish-speaking Socialists—worked for the local Jewish welfare council. In 1968, with her two older brothers approaching draft age, she canvassed for Eugene McCarthy. Around the same time, she led a successful petition drive at her public school demanding that girls be allowed to wear pants instead of skirts. As a teenager, she rebelled not by doing drugs but by enrolling at the Frisch School, a Modern Orthodox high school; she also joined protests against the 1975 United Nations vote equating Zionism and racism.
But she also fell in love with New York, traveling into the city on weekends to sneak into the second half of Broadway shows, when ticket-takers relaxed their vigilance. “I hated, hated, hated growing up in New Jersey,” Kleinbaum told me when we met recently at the storefront space near Penn Station where CBST, long housed in the Westbeth arts complex at the far edge of the Village, is planning to build a new sanctuary. “The city was life, the city spoke to my soul.” Kleinbaum went to Barnard, where she joined the War Resisters League and began protesting alongside Grace Paley. Kleinbaum was arrested protesting outside the Pentagon and wound up spending a month at the Alderson women’s prison in West Virginia. “Getting arrested felt like I was putting my body on the line for change,” Kleinbaum said. “And that month I learned a lot about America, and I’ve never forgotten it.”
After completing her term, Kleinbaum moved to western Massachusetts to work for Aaron Lansky, founder of the Yiddish Book Center, with whom she embarked on various adventures, including rescuing the Yiddish collection from the Newark Public Library. But Kleinbaum eventually decided to pursue a career in the rabbinate. “I always had an appetite for religion and politics,” Kleinbaum explained. “Becoming a rabbi enabled me to be a lifelong student and a lifelong activist.” She enrolled at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1985, the year the first openly lesbian rabbi was ordained, but assumed she would never find a pulpit position when she graduated. “It was impossible then for an openly gay person to get a job at a congregation,” she told me. “And I couldn’t really imagine a congregation that would fit.” Instead, she went to work at the Religious Action Center, the political arm of the Reform movement, handling congregational relations. “She had great instincts politically for what was doable and what was not,” said David Saperstein, the longtime director of the RAC.
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