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.
In 1991, CBST began searching for a full-time rabbi. The synagogue, New York’s first gay congregation, had a robust tradition of lay-led services, but with the AIDS crisis at its nadir, members needed someone to provide pastoral care—and to lead funerals. “There was a big debate about whether what we really needed was a rabbinic social worker, and not a rabbi,” Leonard told me. An article in the New York Times about the search drew a flood of résumés, including some from Orthodox rabbis—“They said every congregation deserves a rabbi,” Leonard said, “but we felt they were contacting us out of sympathy and not because they really wanted to provide us what we needed”—but it wasn’t until Leonard and other committee members saw Kleinbaum give a keynote at a conference of gay and lesbian Jewish organizations in San Francisco that they felt they had a candidate they loved. The talk was about the idea of exile in Jewish tradition and the imperative to use the core idea of wandering—“that trek through the wilderness of ambivalence and anxiety”—as an impetus for spiritual growth. “We’d never heard of her, but we were just blown away,” Leonard said.
Kleinbaum has credited her then-partner, the Reform Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, with pushing her to take the job. One of Kleinbaum’s first tasks was to preside over the funeral of Mel Rosen, the founding executive director of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and president of CBST’s board. “1993 was a war zone in New York City for the LGBT community,” Bill Hibsher, now president of CBST’s board, told me. “People were dying left and right—it was just shock and awe.” At 33, Kleinbaum was responsible for negotiating between dying congregants and their families, some of whom had rejected their children, others of whom had no idea their children or siblings were gay, let alone sick, until they were hospitalized. To her congregants, Kleinbaum’s capacity for navigating the deeply private, deeply personal terrain of pastoral work far outweighs the importance of her political activism. “She’s just so human, and in my experience, that’s not very common,” said the writer Alex Witchel, whose sister Phoebe died last year of breast cancer, at 44. “Sharon brought so much grace and warmth to that situation. She elevated that entire thing.”
In 1973, when CBST began holding services in a church on 14th Street, it counted 95 men and four women among its members. Today, it counts 1,100 members, many of them women and many of them straight. Jewishly educating the children of same-sex couples has become a congregational priority: The synagogue’s memory wall still stands as a testament to the ravages AIDS inflicted on the congregation, but the real action these days is in the rooms used for tot classes, where boxes overflow with stuffed Torahs and kiddush cups. CBST routinely holds High Holiday services in the cavernous Javits Center to accommodate the thousands who attend. “I feel acknowledged, spoken to as a human being, as a Jew,” said Witchel, who is married to Frank Rich. “I’m just as important as the gay person next to me, or the man next to me, and I appreciate that.”
Kleinbaum’s office in the Westbeth space is filled with books and memorabilia, much of it political, including a painting a congregant made from a photograph of Kleinbaum being arrested in 2007 after a sit-in outside the Army recruiting station in Times Square, in protest of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gay service members, which was finally repealed in 2010. She also has a framed score for John Cage’s iconic silent composition 4’33”, which a congregant gave her after she gave a Rosh Hashanah sermon about the power of silence that ended with a performance of the work. The proclamation Quinn gave her in December is propped up on top of a filing cabinet just outside the door. “It also includes in it a warning that this proclamation is not any indication that she is to let up, stop, or slow down,” Quinn said at the event. “We have miles to go before we get this city to the place where Rabbi Kleinbaum and all of us know it needs to be.”
Kleinbaum has a short agenda, which at the moment is topped by issues of economic justice. Over the winter, she was more than happy to criticize Quinn for blocking a City Council vote on whether to mandate paid sick leave for workers—a position Quinn recently reversed, allowing a deal to go through. “She did the right thing,” Kleinbaum told me. “She should have done it on her own, but she got there in the end.” On other issues, like the New York Police Department’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy, Kleinbaum and Quinn have joined together in protest. “If we don’t care about these issues, then I really think as a synagogue we might as well just close up our doors and become a laundromat,” Kleinbaum told me. “Because it’s just bullshit to talk about God on the one hand and prayer and a beautiful sanctuary, and then not care whether working people get paid sick leave.”
This is the public Sharon Kleinbaum. “She has not just a moral bully pulpit in New York, but on a national level,” David Saperstein told me. “When members of Congress look for someone to speak on issues, on gay rights, Sharon’s the first person who comes to mind. She has real national presence.” It was because of Kleinbaum, for example, that CBST was the only individual congregation to join in an amicus brief filed on behalf of Edie Windsor, the widow whose push to get her marriage recognized by the Internal Revenue Service is now being considered by the Supreme Court. In New York, Kleinbaum counts as a celebrity of sorts: When she was arrested protesting in Times Square, in 2007, the police went out of their way to be solicitous. “She was in the cell next to mine, and they were like, ‘Rabbi, would you like some water?’ ” said Matt Foreman, the former executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, who was the only other person arrested at the protest. “Her notoriety rubbed off on me, and I got a bottle of water, too.”
Sometimes, Kleinbaum’s politics make their way back to the synagogue. In March, she asked her board to host a panel on Israel’s future as a democracy after another synagogue, Congregation Ansche Chesed, decided to cancel the event over fears that it would provide a forum for legitimizing the movement to impose boycotts, divestment and sanctions on Israel. “We decided this totally fit into our mission as a synagogue where these issues are discussed,” Kleinbaum said. She is to the left of many of her congregants on issues relating to Israel policy, but regularly argues that it is in the Jewish tradition to air controversial or complicated issues rather than to censor them. “This is an example of something I bring to Bill, and he says, ‘Gulp,’ and then says okay,” Kleinbaum said. “I said support for Israel is one of our core values, and we won’t allow hate speech within our four walls, but it’s something we should do,” Bill Hibsher, the board president, told me. “She’s always charting a course that’s well ahead of people in the congregation, so people roll their eyes and then march behind her.” And even those who are critical of Kleinbaum’s politics, both inside and outside CBST, are reluctant to attack her publicly because of genuine personal affection for her. “I like Sharon,” said one person involved in both gay and Jewish causes, and who is friendly with Kleinbaum and Weingarten. “She just did something I thought was wrong.”
But over her two decades leading CBST, Kleinbaum has naturally attracted her own constituency into her congregation. That includes Weingarten, who first attended services more than a decade ago, when she found herself unable to get home to her parents’ in Rockland County in time for Kol Nidre. “She is a rabbi who focuses on social justice, whether it’s about what role Jews should play in the world or what role a synagogue should play in terms of homeless gay youth, worker dignity and respect, education, issues of just treating people as one would want to be treated,” Weingarten told me.
Weingarten quietly came out as a lesbian during a Pride Month service at CBST in 2007, a few months before her public coming out in October of that year. When she and Kleinbaum began dating, she briefly dropped her membership, she told me. “We’re both public figures and we’re very careful about what we do, and very private about our relationship,” Weingarten said. And Kleinbaum was involved in a bitter divorce from Wenig, whom she married in California in 2008; Wenig told New York earlier this year that the whole episode drove her to consider suicide. (Wenig declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Recently, Kleinbaum made a low-key announcement to the congregation about her relationship with Weingarten, who now sits in what’s known in the synagogue as “the rebbetzin’s seat” when she can make it to Friday night services. For a congregation that is expecting visits in the next month from New York Sen. Chuck Schumer and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, it’s all of a piece. “I think the congregation feels pretty good about Rabbi Kleinbaum showing up at the White House from time to time as Randi’s date,” Hibsher said. “It gives us an exposure we wouldn’t otherwise have.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.