Sharon Kleinbaum gets stellar send-off after 32 years as rabbi at CBST

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah.
Sara Krulwich/CBST

The extraordinary 32-year tenure of Sharon Kleinbaum as Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) — New York’s LGBTQ synagogue that she led to become a major national force in Judaism, LGBTQ rights, and human rights everywhere — was celebrated in words and song at Jazz at Lincoln Center at Columbus Circle on June 3 by political leaders from President Biden on down, performing arts stars, CBST’s Community Chorus, the many rabbis she helped train and inspire, and her spouse, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten.

The evening was hosted by veteran lesbian comedian Kate Clinton, who noted that Kleinbaum was the first full-time Rabbi at the synagogue.

Hillary Clinton spoke at the celebration and said Kleinbuam “made CBST a bold spiritual community of resistance and love. We need both right now.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.Laurie Rhodes/CBST

“Her career demonstrates that joy and resistance can have their roots in despair and adversity,” Clinton said, noting that the Rabbi started at CBST in the depths of the HIV/AIDS crisis in 1992 before there were effective treatments “when we were being reminded by AIDS activists that silence equals death.” She praised CBST as “the only synagogue in the city with an immigration clinic on site — a majority of whom are LGBTQ and/or HIV-positive.”

“Those wanting to try to hijack faith,” Clinton said, “need to be reminded by this rabbi that they are the faithless ones and do not stand with those who care about the pursuit of truth and justice.”

President Joe Biden sent a video tribute from The White House, saying, “For 32 years you’ve been on the front lines of the nation’s most profound and powerful truths: dignity, equality, and love.” Speaking of Sharon and Randi, Biden said, “Jill and I treasure our friendship with both of you.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, also speaking via video, called Kleinbaum “a good friend: compassionate, smart, caring, and energetic. So many of us seek her advice.” He said he was “proud to appoint her to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.”

Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, president of Hebrew College, who just conferred an honorary doctorate on Kleinbaum, said, “32 years ago Sharon said to the CBST congregation, ‘Enlarge the size of your tent. Extend the size of your dwelling. Do not stint! Lengthen the ropes, and drive the pegs firm.’”

“When I text Sharon in the middle of the night to say I am in despair about the state of the world, she almost always writes back immediately, ‘Don’t worry. It’s going to get worse,’” Anisfield said. “I admit that I had to warm to this pastoral move. But this is the thing: For Sharon, hope does not mean everything is going to be OK. It certainly does not mean everything is OK. It starts from her clearheaded, profoundly intelligent assessment of what is and a willingness to be there with you wherever you might be.”

“Sharon understands,” Anisfeld added, “that hope can’t be rushed or facile or forced, but she is unyielding in her insistence that it is a sacred obligation.”

There were also heartfelt (and funny) tributes from Kleinbaum’s adult daughters, Liba Wenig Rubenstein and Molly Wenig Rubenstein.

Molly said, “She taught us how to embrace all the ways we are different with pride.” Liba said, “We learned that no one else could define for us what it meant to be a family, a Jew, or an American.”

Liba added, “Our childhood wasn’t easy, but we would not trade being raised by this fierce, soulful woman and this fierce soulful community for anything.”

Kleinbaum waves to the crowd during a celebration of her career.
Kleinbaum waves to the crowd during a celebration of her career.Laurie Rhodes/CBST

Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen spoke for the 50 former Cooperberg-Rittmaster Rabbinical interns who studied with Kleinbaum at CBST, making it a center for LGBTQ rabbis “with alumni serving all over the world.” In a video, these rabbis praised her mentorship and “how her influence extends beyond the Jewish, LGBTQ, and New York communities.”

Weingarten said she knew Kleinbaum for decades before she came out publicly herself as “a public figure in a city that only pretended to be accepting of LGBTQ people who were ascending to leadership roles.”

“Sharon defied every norm,” Weingarten said. “She was and is brave and brilliant, wise and witty, persistent and pugnacious —not just as a spiritual leader but as a cultural leader who paved the way for others like me to live our authentic lives and to have a shitload of fun while we were doing it.”

“She doesn’t just decry injustice,” Weingarten said, “but she crafts ways to confront and overcome it and bring people together. Yes, she demands a lot from all of us but it’s because she shows us what is right and what is possible. Even in these really fraught times she shows us how to be present, how to be alive, and how to journey for justice.”

A film segment on Sharon showed her in action in many protests — against South African apartheid and nuclear proliferation as well as getting arrested at the Pentagon as a mass of women tried to wrap the building in yarn.

Rabbi Kleinbaum had the last words, thanking her past and present staff, board, and whole family — many of whom were there for her — and her spouse, who Kleinbaum said “spoke so beautifully.”

“It’s not easy being the wife of a rabbi,” Kleinbaum said, prompting laughter, “but honestly it’s not easy being the wife of a labor leader.”

Kleinbaum with her wife, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten.
Kleinbaum with her wife, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten.Laurie Rhodes/CBST

Kleinbaum articulated the principles that have guided her, notably that it’s about “more than numbers. The metric by which a synagogue should be judged… is how much each person who comes in contact with that synagogue community is personally, profoundly, and deeply transformed.” She also said, “The best way to defeat anti-Semitism in the world today is to be more Jewish. That is the best way to transform the hate in the world.”

Kleinbaum said she strove to make CBST provide “a community we love, a prayer and music life that transforms our spiritual innards, and an intellectual life that doesn’t talk down to us but in fact encourages us to see Judaism as source of profound intellectual curiosity and inquiry.”

The evening was also filled with great music and song, something that Kleinbaum has emphasized in her services at CBST.

Introduced by Seth Rudetsky, Tony winners Danny Burstein (for “Moulin Rouge!”) and Andrea Martin (for “Pippin” and “My Favorite Year”) sang a sweet duet of “Do You Love Me?” from “Fiddler on the Roof” as they did in the last Broadway revival. And the CBST Community Chorus did a humorous riff on “Tradition” from that show called “Transition” as Kleinbaum moves on to the next stage of her life.

Out Beth Malone, Tony-nominated for “Fun Home,” sang the “Ring of Keys” number from that Tony-winning musical, a song about a young lesbian’s awakening to her identity when a butch repair woman visits her house.

Mozart’s String Quartet in G Major was performed by Sebu Sirinian and Lisa Tipton (on violin), Adria Benjamin (viola), and Deborah Assael-Migliore (cello).

Metropolitan Opera soprano Toni Marie Palmertree gave a stirring rendition of “Vissa d’arte” from Puccini’s “Tosca” and Sally Wilfert sang “Infinite Joy” from “Elegies: A Song Cycle” by out composer William Finn, a CBST member.

CBST’s Cantor Sam Rosen and music director Joyce Rosenzweig combined for “In Kheyder” and, with the CBST Chorus, “L’dor Vador.”

Rabbi Kleinbaum’s last service as Senior Rabbi will be on June 28 at CBST’s Pride Shabbat at 130 W. 30th St. She will be succeeded by Jason Klein as Senior Rabbi on July 1 when she will assume Emerita status at the synagogue.

Event co-chairs Eric Rosenbaum and Lisa Kartzman announced that the evening had raised $1.15 million for the Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum-Randi Weingarten Fund for Social Justice at CBST to honor their legacies.

The fund is dedicated to enabling CBST to “augment and build upon its work as a leader in the Jewish/LGBTQ+ community social justice movements.”

Video of the celebration is on YouTube for a limited time.