“CBST represents much of what is best about American Judaism—even if America doesn’t know it yet,” Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum said in 1992, when she was installed as the leader of New York City’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. Last week, at a special event honoring Kleinbaum for her 20 years of service to CBST—now the world’s largest LGBT synagogue—hundreds of people, if not America writ large, seemed, finally, to know it. Kleinbaum, who made Newsweek’s list of “America’s Top 50 Rabbis” and its list of “150 Women Who Shake The World” this year, is an openly lesbian rabbi whose background spans the gamut of religious affiliations: Raised in a Conservative synagogue, she attended the Orthodox Frisch Yeshiva High School, worked for the Reform movement, and received ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
A leading social justice activist, she has fought for marriage equality, testified before Congress, and advocated for women, African Americans, LGBTQ people, immigrants, and Palestinians. When same-sex marriage was legalized in New York, she performed ten marriages in a single day. Kleinbaum joined CBST at the height of the AIDS crisis, when the congregation lost 25 to 30 percent of its male members and the disease served as a rallying point for the Jewish community.
Reflecting on the gulf between that devastating period and today, the rabbi said, “In these 20 years, we’ve gone from a place where AIDS was the organizational principle of our lives to [a place where] many young people don’t even know what a T-cell count is.” She is worried that the Jewish community—now relatively insulated from AIDS—has become complacent about the disease and the very real threat it still represents, particularly to low-income and black populations in New York.
“It was easier when the enemy was Ronald Reagan. Now that we have the tools, now that we’ve figured out a thing or two about power, how are we going to help those who are not doing as well?” Refusing to be made redundant by its own success, CBST remains an outward-looking community, advocating for the human rights of Jews and gentiles alike. Kleinbaum, who has publicly criticized Israeli policy toward Palestinians, noted that CBST has taken six congregational trips to Israel and Palestine. These trips have emphasized Israel’s social justice challenges and have included meetings with Palestinians in the West Bank as well as Israel’s Ethiopian and Bedouin populations.