Liberation Through Religion: A Conversation with Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum

October 15, 2010

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum’s life traces the arc of the LGBT rights movement over the last four decades. In the late 70s, when she started college, she believed that she was the only woman on the planet who was romantically interested in other women. Today, as the rabbi of New York City’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the largest LGBT synagogue in the world, she is one of the country’s foremost spokes- persons for LGBT Jews and a preeminent religious voice for progressive values.

Kleinbaum graduated from Barnard College, where she was an activist leader, and was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Before becoming Congregation Beth Simchat Torah’s first rabbi in 1992, she was assistant director at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., and director of Congregational Relations at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, DC.

In 2009, the Arcus Foundation’s Religion & Values program gave Congregation Beth Simchat Torah a grant of $350,000 “to assume a national LGBT advocacy role within the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements of Judaism and within the larger LGBT movement.” For Kleinbaum, this work is a natural extension of her core values and beliefs.

What are the origins of your commitment to activism and social justice?

I come from a committed family. My father was a pacifist and a conscientious objector in World War II, which was very unusual, especially since he was the son of a Jewish immigrant. I learned a lot from him about being willing to take difficult positions, regardless of their popularity. I’m the youngest of four, and my oldest brother was very involved in Cesar Chavez’s farm worker organizing movement. We spent many Saturdays picketing outside the local supermarket. I canvassed for Gene McCarthy during his run for U.S. Presidency despite the fact that we lived in a very Republican town.

My first major action was in fifth grade, when two of my closest friends and I led a campaign to get the school system in our town to allow girls to wear pants to school. We organized the entire school. We let the kindergarten kids color on the petition since they couldn’t sign their names. The local newspaper wrote an article, the town got interested, and we won. That was my first taste of political victory.

How was Judaism part of your political development?

My family was not particularly religious, but we were very deeply Jewish. In the early ‘70s, the public schools in my town were falling apart. A new Ortho- dox Jewish school had just opened, so I went there and became Orthodox. I was always interested in pursuing questions of meaning and purpose — why are we here and what makes our lives worth living? The Judaism of my childhood was very superficial, but at this Jewish school, I discovered other aspects of being Jewish: the historical, text-based, intellectual, and spiritual sides of Judaism. From the Orthodox teachings, I learned that Judaism has great depth, that it is in fact more than just a cultural tradition, that the religious and intellectual traditions are profound.

When I went to college, I began to notice that in all of the political work I was doing, the non-Jews would say, for example, that their Christianity or Catholicism fueled their positions on nuclear arms or tenant’s rights, but the Jews would not say their Judaism fueled their activism. I was disappointed, because I knew that Judaism has as much to say about social justice as any religion. I din’t want to be Orthodox anymore, but I wanted to use my knowledge of the texts to build and energize a progressive vision of Judaism that was not just a Judaism of lox and bagels and “Oy vey,” but a Judaism that could be part of changing the world, eradicating violence and creating justice.

What led you to being ordained as a Reconstructionist rabbi?

I grew up in a Conservative synagogue, and attended an Orthodox high school where I became very Orthodox. However, in my senior year, I became uncomfort- able with the position of women, which becomes clearer as you get deeper into the Jewish texts. I looked around the Orthodox world and wondered where I fit in. I knew I didn’t want to get married, but I couldn’t articulate why. Looking back, I think a piece of it was that I was coming out. I didn’t see any place for me as a lesbian in the Jewish world.

In college, I became interested in non- religious Jewish “stuff,” such as Jewish history, Yiddish and Eastern European Jewish culture. I started to get in touch with the radical history of Judaism. After college, I worked at the National Yiddish Book Center. While I was there, I became the unofficial “rabbi” of a community of hippie Jews who were living in the hills nearby. I loved being a bridge builder between the history of our tradition and what it has to offer, and the people I met. I was outraged that they didn’t have access to Judaism that could enrich their activism.

That’s when I decided to go back to rabbinical school, because I wanted to study Judaism as an adult, as a lesbian, and as a progressive activist. I wanted to be able to ask meaningful questions from a place of integrity and see what the tradition had to offer me.

The Conservative movement was not ordaining women, and the Reform movement gave you a psychological test to see if you were gay. If they thought you were, you couldn’t get in. Then in 1984, the Reconstructionist Judaism movement passed a nondiscriminatory admissions policy because they saw homosexuality as a human rights issue, although they didn’t think through the cultural implica- tions. I entered the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1985, and started the “What Now?” committee to address those implications. For the next four years, I was involved in activism in the liberal Jewish world to transform Judaism from just letting gays and lesbians par- ticipate, to removing heterosexual bias, which meant rethinking Jewish family, family education, how synagogues are run and organized, and how we talk about sex and family. Ultimately, we had to address the theology, since Judaism is based on a heterosexual theology in which God is dominant and male, and Israel is subordinate and female. We transformed the school, and then we emanated out and transformed the Reconstructionist movement.

What role can a synagogue like Congregation Beth Simchat Torah play in the movement for LGBT rights?

The major factor responsible for the oppression of gay people all over the world is religion. We want to be at the forefront of a progressive religious multi-faith movement that rejects all religious fun- damentalism and is part of transforming the nature of religious discourse itself. Sexuality is at the center of this transfor- mation because it’s the thing of which religion is most afraid. Gay people have been considered sick, criminal, or sinful. In the United States, sick and criminal have been eliminated, but sinful is the category of oppression for gay people in all religions. In other parts of the world, they are still considered sick, criminal, and sinful.

If religion is at the source of the oppression, then I believe we can’t just ignore it. We need to make it the source of liberation. Joining with progressive Christians, Muslims, and Hindus, we can be the source of a worldwide move- ment to liberate gay people. We want to transform not just Judaism, but the major religious discourse in America and throughout the world.

Why has the Arcus Foundation singled out Congregation Beth Simchat Torah’s social justice work?

I think we’re successful at what we do. We want our synagogue to be a place of personal transformation where people are changed and energized for their work in the world, and as a community we are changing the world. I want to be part of creating a world where, 30 years from now, religion will not be a part of oppressing gay people around the world, and that’s what Congregation Beth Simchat Torah is doing. We have let fundamentalist religious leaders monopolize the discussion of values, while we talk about human rights. They are two different things. Most human beings have an appetite for meaning and purpose in the world and want to live a life with values and principles. I believe we are a community of meaning and values and purpose. There is no monopoly on values and purpose. I’m very honored that Arcus has singled us out. The monies we’ve received have transformed our ability to amplify the work we do. With funding from Arcus, we’re training rabbinical students to work with LGBT Jews, we are expanding our training for ordained rabbis to care for the LGBT members in their communities, we are transforming our lay leaders into social justice activists and we’re conduct- ing a census of senior centers to analyze how they take care of LGBT older adults. We care about transforming the denomi- nations, and being a voice.

What most excites you right now?

I’m most excited about changing the debate about religion and LGBT people, and changing the assumption that religion is anti-gay. Though some religious traditions and leaders are anti-gay, many are not. It is our job to amplify their voices so that religion can be the voice of libera- tion for gay people around the world.

What worries you?

The centralized power of the radical religious right is a terrifying force in the world. But I believe we shall overcome.

Rebecca Steinitz is a writer, editor and nonprofit consultant in Arlington, Massachusetts.