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A Zionist Porn Star, a Lube Merchant, and a Lesbian Rabbi Walk Into a Gay Synagogue…

Accepted by the mainstream Jewish community, some gays now feel excluded at New York’s premier LGBT synagogue

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Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum in New York, March 2007. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
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On Aug. 12, Bryan Bridges posted an open letter on his Facebook page announcing his resignation from the board of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST, located on Bethune Street), New York’s oldest and largest synagogue serving gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews. “Recent events have demonstrated that CBST is far more committed to a progressive political agenda than to the Jewish people,” he wrote. The synagogue’s “agenda” had come to encompass open hostility to the Jewish state, Bridges alleged, a fact made all too clear in the wake of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge.

Bridges went on to offer a litany of examples as to what motivated him to leave CBST: The synagogue’s Facebook page included a link to a fundraiser sending potatoes to Gaza, while failing to post information on similar efforts benefitting Israelis. Shabbat services were regularly being “hijacked by a political agenda.” Last year, after another congregation canceled a panel discussion featuring two anti-Zionist activists who back the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, CBST swooped in and provided the event with a room and institutional sponsorship. The culprit in Bridges’ telling is Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, CBST’s senior rabbi and a big-time macher in the world of progressive Judaism.

Normally, a synagogue board member resigning over a political disagreement with the rabbi would not make news, but Bridges’ stepping down has garnered attention beyond the New York gay Jewish community. No doubt, this has something to do with the high-profile nature of CBST’s role as the country’s largest and most prestigious gay synagogue, as well as Kleinbaum’s stature as a prominent rabbi at the intersection of the Jewish, gay, and left-wing activist worlds. Named to Newsweek’s list of Top 50 Most Influential Rabbis, Kleinbaum is half of a leading lesbian power couple; her partner is American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. She counts actress Cynthia Nixon (who has spoken from the CBST bimah) and former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (who last year presented Kleinbaum with a proclamation marking her 20 years as a rabbi at CBST) as pals. New York writer Frank Rich—whose visage, under a kippah, can be seen on the CBST homepage—is one of several high-profile congregants.

When it was founded in 1973, CBST had just 100 members, nearly all of them gay men. Today, due in no small part to Kleinbaum’s charismatic leadership, the synagogue boasts over 1,100 adult members (nearly double its size just five years ago), many of them women, and many of whom are heterosexual. Its High Holy Day suite of services at the Javits Convention Center attracts thousands of people. CBST is in the midst of a massive capital campaign to construct a new synagogue in a space it purchased several years ago on 30th street.

Kleinbaum’s public statements throughout Operation Protective Edge placed a heavy emphasis on the suffering endured by Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip, which did little to alleviate a growing sense of isolation felt by supporters of Israel during the recent conflict. Her reading the names of Gazan casualties at a Friday night service—which to Bridges was redolent of “saying Kaddish” for them—was particularly provocative to some congregants. Even though she also recited the names of fallen Israeli soldiers, the whole exercise was conducted in a sort of moral haze; her intention seemed to place blame equally on both sides as if there was not an actor (Hamas) primarily responsible for the carnage. Given the terror group’s strategy of firing on Israel from hospitals and schools and surrounding its fighters with civilians, Bridges alleged, this “was essentially delivering Hamas propaganda. … My partner and I are starting a family and frankly I don’t want to raise my kids in a synagogue that’s praying for people firing rockets.”

Having finally won the acceptance from mainstream Judaism that had so long eluded them, some gay Jews now feel excluded at CBST because of their Zionism.

The departure of Bridges, who is married to an Israeli and volunteered as a Hebrew teacher for adult learners, sent a shockwave through the synagogue membership. “I know Bryan well enough to know that he’s not a knee jerker,” one congregant told me. “He’s a very measured guy. He used to be the poster child for CBST. Something had to have finally pushed him to this point.” Indeed, Bridges is no rabid right-winger, although that is how Kleinbaum and others are trying to portray him. In an interview with the Forward, she accused her former board member of practicing “McCarthyism” by “deciding who’s a good Jew and a bad Jew.” Within the confines of CBST, Bridges’ outspoken support for Israel under siege increasingly put him at odds with the synagogue’s board, where opinions he said, tended to run the “gamut from [support for one] bi-national state to Jews evacuating Israel.” As an undergraduate at Columbia, Bridges headed the school’s Progressive Zionist Caucus, and says he used to receive threatening phone calls from the Jewish Defense League. After a classmate was killed in a terrorist attack in Israel, one caller told him the tragedy was the fault of liberal Jews like himself. “My politics haven’t changed,” he told me. “I support a two-state solution; I think the Palestinians have a right to self-determination. Odd that in this congregation this is seen as right wing.”

A recent email to congregants, signed by Kleinbaum along with the synagogue’s president and executive director, challenged the membership to see CBST not as a group of like-minded friends, but as a community, where, inevitably, there will exist people one doesn’t much like, never mind agree with on political subjects. “We often say that the difference between community and a friendship circle is that we don’t always want to have dinner with everyone in our community,” the letter read. “A friendship circle, on the other hand, tends to have those who most reflect who we already are—usually most similar in political, religious and demographic ways.”

As a gay synagogue, it is perhaps inevitable that a place like CBST would also be politically liberal, in line with the prevailing views of gay people. But it’s possible to be both liberal and pro-Israel; indeed, the case for gays to be sympathetic to (not blindly supportive of) Israel is evident in light of the way homosexuality is treated throughout the Arab and Muslim world. In this sense, the tension within CBST is a reflection of a broader trend indicating a gradual decline in support for Israel among American liberals. Daniel Weiss left the synagogue several years ago after moving to New Jersey, but he told me that he would “have stayed in the synagogue if I had felt very strongly connected to it.” Yet Kleinbaum’s “political stands” made him “uncomfortable at times.”

***

CBST was founded in 1973—the same year that the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders—and was one of the first gay synagogues in the country. It was a time when establishment religions, including Judaism, were hostile to gays. Today, both the Reform and Conservative branches of American Judaism ordain gay rabbis and perform gay marriages, lay organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee stand fully behind the pro-gay agenda, and Jews generally are more supportive of gay rights than practically any other American demographic. Indeed, that CBST counts so many straight members is a testament to the larger success of the gay rights movement; it’s not hard to think back to an era when most Jews would have avoided being caught dead at a feygele shul. Yet having finally won the acceptance from mainstream Judaism that had so long eluded them, some gay Jews now feel excluded at CBST because of their Zionism.

“Controversy isn’t a bad thing,” Kleinbaum told me, when I asked for her reaction to Bridges’ resignation. Ginning up controversy seems to be something of a calling for Kleinbaum, who has worked as a progressive activist within the Jewish community and without, trying to win a respected place for LGBT Jews inside the broader Jewish world and sympathy for the Palestinian cause among her fellow gay Jews. The former struggle, needless to say, has been easier than the latter, not least because her advocacy on the Middle East often comes across as disproportionately critical of the Jewish state. A participant on the first trip she led to Israel on behalf of CBST nearly two decades ago claimed to have been “mortified” by her behavior. “It seemed as though the Rabbi and most of the people on the tour cried more for the Palestinians and other Arabs than they did for the Jews. … One of the people in the group grilled the person with whom we met about how an out gay person would be treated in the community. I was waiting for that question to be asked of the Palestinians with whom we met, but there was silence.”

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A Zionist Porn Star, a Lube Merchant, and a Lesbian Rabbi Walk Into a Gay Synagogue…

Accepted by the mainstream Jewish community, some gays now feel excluded at New York’s premier LGBT synagogue