The installation of Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum at her new congregation on a recent Friday night eve was much like other rabbis’ installations – full of enthusiasm, hope and warmth.
But in almost every other respect the occasion was unique.
The installation took place at the world’s largest gay and lesbian synagogue – Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. And the sanctuary was packed. So many people wanted to attend that some had to be turned away after more than 1,000 were admitted. Long after every seat was filled, people flowed into the room, many standing on the perimeter throughout the three-hour service.
It was a historic night for New York’s gay and lesbian Jews. Kleinbaum is the first full-time rabbi ever hired by the 20-year-old congregation, and her installation formally ended a difficult and highly publicized search.
Along the way, CBST congregants encountered the painful realization that much of the larger Jewish community doesn’t accept them as a community of Jews.
But Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, delivered an installation address that gave strong support to the congregation and assailed the concept of “family values” as it has been put forth by the Republican Party.
“Their ‘values’ are values of a Disneyland America that wears a smile-button as its badge and declares as alien anyone whose countenance suggests a more subtle emotion,” said Schindler.
“Their ‘values’ have been proffered throughout American history as codewords for racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny and xenophobia, and this year, a not-so-new twist, homophobia. Gay people have come to the fore as the demon, the alien, the scapegoat.”
Schindler went on to excoriate elected officials for their “sickening silence” in the face of the “family values” platform, when they “should have repudiated these rantings at once as polarizing, inflammatory incitements to violence.
“Their silence shames them, and threatens the liberties of all Americans,” he said, to bursts of applause.
The theme of AIDS also permeated the Sept. 11 ceremony. AIDS is a part of the very fabric of CBST’s congregants’ lives; it is not a remote issue, as it is for many other congregations, but has touched the life of every member.
In the month that Kleinbaum has worked at CBST, four members have been buried – all died of AIDS. So far, about 100 members have died of AIDS, and 15 percent of the congregation’s members are thought to have tested positive for the virus that causes it.
“We have known too much death, too much violence, too much grief to be flip about anything,” Kleinbaum said in her remarks. “AIDS has decimated our world and we are all diminished for it.”
Local elected officials, the chief of the area’s police precinct and the mayor’s liaison to the gay and lesbian community all attended. Leaders of the Reform and Reconstructionist movements were also strongly represented.
Besides Schindler, Rabbis David Saperstein and Lynne Landsberg from the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center attended. Before coming to CBST, Kleinbaum worked as director of congregational relations for the center.
Kleinbaum received her ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and its dean, Rabbi Jacob Staub, was present.
After Schindler and Kleinbaum concluded their remarks, the congregation sang songs of praise to God, and then, as everyone clapped and sang “Siman Tov and Mazel Tov” (Good Fortune and Good Luck), the dancing began.
Whirling with joy in front of the ark, a circle of women expressed in movement the happiness and hope that was shared that night by 1,000 other Jews at CBST.