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