After 32 years as a progressive voice for LGBTQ Jews, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum heads into retirement

NEW YORK (AP) — For more than three decades, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum has led the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ synagogue through the myriad ups and downs of the modern gay-rights movement — through the AIDS crisis, the murder of Matthew Shepard, the historic civil-rights advances that included marriage equality, and most recently the backlash against transgender rights.

She is now stepping down from that role and shifting into retirement. The New York City synagogue that she led for 32 years — Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in midtown Manhattan — will have to grapple with its identity after being defined by its celebrity rabbi for so long.

Her retirement also comes at a challenging moment for the LGBTQ+-rights movement. Same-sex marriage is legal nationwide, but conservative politicians are enacting restrictions on transgender healthcare, restricting LGBTQ+ curriculum in schools, and proposing bans on the performances of drag queens.

“I’ve been blessed and privileged to have the opportunity to use the gifts I have, on behalf of God’s vision for the world,” Kleinbaum said in an interview. “I’m very, very lucky that I’ve been able to do this. I just feel like now is the time to make room for a younger generation.”

Embraced by her congregation and left-leaning politicians, Kleinbaum, 65, taught an unapologetic progressive vision for Judaism that resonated beyond the enclave of Manhattan and liberal Judaism. When Donald Trump was elected president, Kleinbaum had the synagogue do outreach to Muslims. The congregation also built an immigration clinic to help LGBTQ+ refugees in hostile parts of the world get asylum in the U.S.

“It is a religious calling to help the immigrant. I see that it is just as deeply important for (the synagogue) as it is leading Friday night services,” Kleinbaum said.

Congregation Beit Simach Torah, better known as CBST, has roughly 1,000 paying members. About 4,000 Jews, from nonreligious to Orthodox, show up to the temple’s High Holy Day services, historically held in New York’s Jacob Javits Convention Center on the West Side of Manhattan.

The temple’s regular congregants have been a Who’s Who of media and LGBTQ+ historical figures. Edie Windsor, who sued and won to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, was in regular attendance while she was alive. Andy Cohen, of “Real Housewives” fame, is there regularly. Joan Rivers showed up for Yom Kippur. Kleinbaum’s wife is Randi Weingarten, the head of the nation’s biggest teachers union.

Appointed in 1992, Kleinbaum spent much of her first year burying members of her congregation, many of them dying from AIDS. The need for a salaried rabbi to provide pastoral care was among the biggest reasons for CBST to hire its first rabbi. One of her first funeral services was for a member of the search committee that hired her.

The 1990s brought the increased visibility of gay and lesbians in the public sphere, but also brought the passage of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between only a man and a woman.

“She really was doing rabbinical triage work at the beginning, working with a community that ultimately saw (a third) of its members die of AIDS,” said William Hibsher, a member of CBST for several decades who was there when Kleinbaum was appointed.

Hibsher was not an observant Jew in early 1990s, but he said he felt inspired by Kleinbaum’s work as well as the care she provided to his partner, who died from AIDS in the mid-1990s. He later became heavily involved with the synagogue, including serving on its board of directors and helping raise millions for its current location on West 30th Street.

When New York legalized same-sex marriage in 2013, Kleinbaum stood in the park across the street from the marriage bureau and performed same-sex weddings outdoors. Among the couples she married in 2014 were two men who had spent 20 months planning their wedding, which was held in a former Broadway theater.

Kleinbaum hasn’t specified what she plans to do in retirement, but said she’s likely to continue doing social justice work or working in Democratic politics. CBST has given her the title of “senior rabbi emerita” to show a level of connectedness as she steps down, but the bimah at CBST will no longer be hers.

Even people who would be considered her ideological adversaries have found common ground to collaborate with her on issues of religious freedom and human rights.

When President Joe Biden appointed Kleinbaum to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which monitors and researches freedom of religious expression worldwide, she served as a commissioner alongside Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council. The council opposes the LGBTQ+-rights movement.

“She’s able to step back and see where (two with strong ideological differences) can meet on core issues, and realize here’s where we can find common ground,” said Fred Davie, an administrator at Union Theological Seminary and a longtime friend of Kleinbaum.

Kleinbaum served two terms on the USCIRF. Her first term ended early in 2020 when she decided to focus attention on her congregation amid the COVID-19 pandemic. For her and the congregation, it was familiar territory after the AIDS crisis.

“We knew immediately many of the elements that we had to deal with: isolation, loneliness, fear,” Kleinbaum said. “There were differences, of course, between AIDS, but many things were enough similar that it almost felt like muscle memory.”

For the congregation, there seems to be a degree of uncertainty of what the synagogue will be without her. CBST, like many congregations, skews toward older members; many have been with Kleinbaum since the beginning.

The synagogue named Jason Klein as new chief rabbi earlier this year; he will start on July 1. But the consensus among members seems to be that Kleinbaum is simply irreplaceable.

“I think people, in their heart of hearts, wanted to find a Kleinbaum 2.0 to replace her,” Hibsher said. “There’s a landscape of wonderful progressive synagogues throughout Manhattan. So part of the question for the congregation will be: Is there a need for an LGBT synagogue in the year 2024? I think there is.”

While Kleinbaum laid out her plans to leave CBST a year ago, there were audible gasps at Yom Kippur services last September among the attendees when it was mentioned that CBST would no longer be headed by her. Her second-to-last Shabbat service, held June 21, was a sold-out event. The keynote speaker: New York Attorney General Letitia James.

“Most importantly, she has given us a space,” James said, using her hands to point to the synagogue and its standing room only crowd. “This space. Where we can be safe. Where we can be free.”


Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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