New York’s New Firebrand Rabbi
For Sharon Kleinbaum—friend of Christine Quinn, partner to Randi Weingarten—the personal is political
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.”
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