Mazel Tov to Lesbian Rabbi
By KERRY ELEVELD
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, the leader of New York’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (CBST), has been named one of Newsweek magazine’s Top 50 Rabbis in America. Rabbi Kleinbaum, who is openly gay, came in at number 19 and was the first of only five females to be listed.
“I mean, talk about a seismic shift in the American landscape,” Kleinbaum said of being gay and also being the first woman listed.
Rabbis chosen were ranked based on community leadership, national and international influence, media and political presence, contribution to Jewish life, and enduring impact on both Judaism and the larger world.
Overall, two of the five women on the list were lesbians (including Kleinbaum) and another, Rabbi Janet Marder, was the first straight Rabbi to serve as leader of an LGBT congregation, L.A.’s Beth Chayim Chadashim, in the 1980s.
“I absolutely believe that anybody in this generation who is at the forefront of social justice and making an impact on Judaism would care deeply about the role and the place of gays and lesbians,” said Kleinbaum, referring to the strong presence of female Rabbis who have close ties to the LGBT community.
Rabbi Kleinbaum was trained in the Reconstructionist tradition of the Jewish religion, which began ordaining gays and lesbians in 1985, her first year of rabbinical school. The Reconstructionist movement is one of four Jewish movements, including the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements. “When I went to rabbinical school as an openly gay person, both the Reform and the Conservative movement still practiced discrimination,” she said. “They had psychological tests that they would perform on incoming candidates. One of the things they looked at was were you attracted to people of the same sex.”
The Reform movement began ordaining gays and lesbians in 1990, the same year Kleinbaum completed her rabbinical training. The Conservative movement made a decision to allow but not require their seminaries to ordain gays and lesbians just last December.
Gay Synagogue CBST At CBST, the world’s largest LGBT synagogue with about 800 members, Rabbi Kleinbaum said they are trying to create “a model of what leadership should look like so that our congregants can see us and say, ‘Wow, there isn’t one way to be a committed active person in the world.’”
Beyond Rabbi Kleinbaum, the leaders include Associate Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, who is straight, a gay male cantorial student who will soon be full time at CBST, straight board members, and a straight rabbinical student.
The congregation also includes many straight and non-Jewish members.
“They’re attracted to CBST because we’re making religion a meaningful and powerful force for liberation,” said Kleinbaum, adding that part of their innovative spirit comes out of having an LGBT experience in the world.
“We’re sensitive to very unusual or not normative family structures,” Kleinbaum said. “We welcomed people from the beginning who were either not coupled or didn’t have children or were in profound conflict with their families of origin. Nobody who comes to CBST comes because their grandmother wants them to be coming to a synagogue.”
CBST has created “lifecycle events” or celebrations for people whose achievements and milestones often go unrecognized by mainstream religions and are sometimes even shunned. These include blessings for people who are in same-sex relationships as well as for people who are either transgender or transitioning by changing their name or identity.
“We believe that religion is about marking important moments in our lives and no matter what somebody’s definition of God is-we don’t have a litmus test-we do believe that everybody can experience meaning and purpose in their lives,” explained Kleinbaum. “We have been about really trying to figure out, What does it mean to be a person in this modern world? What does it mean to live a life of meaning and purpose?”
Rabbi Kleinbaum is a high profile activist herself. She testified before the U.S. Congress in hearings about same-sex marriage and attended the President’s White House meeting of national religious leaders in 1999, during the Clinton Administration. She was also one of nine religious leaders recognized earlier this year among the Forward 50-the daily Jewish newspaper’s listing of the 50 most influential Jews in America.
Most recently, Kleinbaum made headlines for being arrested March 15 while protesting the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy outside the New York City Armed Services Recruitment Center on 42nd Street.
“I’m going to keep getting arrested until these laws are changed. Can you believe the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States gets away with saying we’re immoral?” she said, referring to Gen. Peter Pace’s comments several weeks ago that homosexuality was immoral. “Had he said that about any other group in America, in five minutes, he would have been fired.”
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, left, a lesbian and leader of the world’s largest LGBT synagogue, and Matthew Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, protested with ACT UP against the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy on March 15 outside of the Army Recruitment Center on 42nd Street. Rabbi Kleinbaum was named number 19 in Newsweek’s top 50 Rabbis most influential Rabbis in America.
New York Blade