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A Zionist Porn Star, a Lube Merchant, and a Lesbian Rabbi Walk Into a Gay Synagogue…

Accepted by the mainstream Jewish community, some gays now feel excluded at New York’s premier LGBT synagogue

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Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum in New York, March 2007. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
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On Aug. 12, Bryan Bridges posted an open letter on his Facebook page announcing his resignation from the board of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST, located on Bethune Street), New York’s oldest and largest synagogue serving gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews. “Recent events have demonstrated that CBST is far more committed to a progressive political agenda than to the Jewish people,” he wrote. The synagogue’s “agenda” had come to encompass open hostility to the Jewish state, Bridges alleged, a fact made all too clear in the wake of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge.

Bridges went on to offer a litany of examples as to what motivated him to leave CBST: The synagogue’s Facebook page included a link to a fundraiser sending potatoes to Gaza, while failing to post information on similar efforts benefitting Israelis. Shabbat services were regularly being “hijacked by a political agenda.” Last year, after another congregation canceled a panel discussion featuring two anti-Zionist activists who back the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, CBST swooped in and provided the event with a room and institutional sponsorship. The culprit in Bridges’ telling is Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, CBST’s senior rabbi and a big-time macher in the world of progressive Judaism.

Normally, a synagogue board member resigning over a political disagreement with the rabbi would not make news, but Bridges’ stepping down has garnered attention beyond the New York gay Jewish community. No doubt, this has something to do with the high-profile nature of CBST’s role as the country’s largest and most prestigious gay synagogue, as well as Kleinbaum’s stature as a prominent rabbi at the intersection of the Jewish, gay, and left-wing activist worlds. Named to Newsweek’s list of Top 50 Most Influential Rabbis, Kleinbaum is half of a leading lesbian power couple; her partner is American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. She counts actress Cynthia Nixon (who has spoken from the CBST bimah) and former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (who last year presented Kleinbaum with a proclamation marking her 20 years as a rabbi at CBST) as pals. New York writer Frank Rich—whose visage, under a kippah, can be seen on the CBST homepage—is one of several high-profile congregants.

When it was founded in 1973, CBST had just 100 members, nearly all of them gay men. Today, due in no small part to Kleinbaum’s charismatic leadership, the synagogue boasts over 1,100 adult members (nearly double its size just five years ago), many of them women, and many of whom are heterosexual. Its High Holy Day suite of services at the Javits Convention Center attracts thousands of people. CBST is in the midst of a massive capital campaign to construct a new synagogue in a space it purchased several years ago on 30th street.

Kleinbaum’s public statements throughout Operation Protective Edge placed a heavy emphasis on the suffering endured by Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip, which did little to alleviate a growing sense of isolation felt by supporters of Israel during the recent conflict. Her reading the names of Gazan casualties at a Friday night service—which to Bridges was redolent of “saying Kaddish” for them—was particularly provocative to some congregants. Even though she also recited the names of fallen Israeli soldiers, the whole exercise was conducted in a sort of moral haze; her intention seemed to place blame equally on both sides as if there was not an actor (Hamas) primarily responsible for the carnage. Given the terror group’s strategy of firing on Israel from hospitals and schools and surrounding its fighters with civilians, Bridges alleged, this “was essentially delivering Hamas propaganda. … My partner and I are starting a family and frankly I don’t want to raise my kids in a synagogue that’s praying for people firing rockets.”

Having finally won the acceptance from mainstream Judaism that had so long eluded them, some gay Jews now feel excluded at CBST because of their Zionism.

The departure of Bridges, who is married to an Israeli and volunteered as a Hebrew teacher for adult learners, sent a shockwave through the synagogue membership. “I know Bryan well enough to know that he’s not a knee jerker,” one congregant told me. “He’s a very measured guy. He used to be the poster child for CBST. Something had to have finally pushed him to this point.” Indeed, Bridges is no rabid right-winger, although that is how Kleinbaum and others are trying to portray him. In an interview with the Forward, she accused her former board member of practicing “McCarthyism” by “deciding who’s a good Jew and a bad Jew.” Within the confines of CBST, Bridges’ outspoken support for Israel under siege increasingly put him at odds with the synagogue’s board, where opinions he said, tended to run the “gamut from [support for one] bi-national state to Jews evacuating Israel.” As an undergraduate at Columbia, Bridges headed the school’s Progressive Zionist Caucus, and says he used to receive threatening phone calls from the Jewish Defense League. After a classmate was killed in a terrorist attack in Israel, one caller told him the tragedy was the fault of liberal Jews like himself. “My politics haven’t changed,” he told me. “I support a two-state solution; I think the Palestinians have a right to self-determination. Odd that in this congregation this is seen as right wing.”

A recent email to congregants, signed by Kleinbaum along with the synagogue’s president and executive director, challenged the membership to see CBST not as a group of like-minded friends, but as a community, where, inevitably, there will exist people one doesn’t much like, never mind agree with on political subjects. “We often say that the difference between community and a friendship circle is that we don’t always want to have dinner with everyone in our community,” the letter read. “A friendship circle, on the other hand, tends to have those who most reflect who we already are—usually most similar in political, religious and demographic ways.”

As a gay synagogue, it is perhaps inevitable that a place like CBST would also be politically liberal, in line with the prevailing views of gay people. But it’s possible to be both liberal and pro-Israel; indeed, the case for gays to be sympathetic to (not blindly supportive of) Israel is evident in light of the way homosexuality is treated throughout the Arab and Muslim world. In this sense, the tension within CBST is a reflection of a broader trend indicating a gradual decline in support for Israel among American liberals. Daniel Weiss left the synagogue several years ago after moving to New Jersey, but he told me that he would “have stayed in the synagogue if I had felt very strongly connected to it.” Yet Kleinbaum’s “political stands” made him “uncomfortable at times.”

***

CBST was founded in 1973—the same year that the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders—and was one of the first gay synagogues in the country. It was a time when establishment religions, including Judaism, were hostile to gays. Today, both the Reform and Conservative branches of American Judaism ordain gay rabbis and perform gay marriages, lay organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee stand fully behind the pro-gay agenda, and Jews generally are more supportive of gay rights than practically any other American demographic. Indeed, that CBST counts so many straight members is a testament to the larger success of the gay rights movement; it’s not hard to think back to an era when most Jews would have avoided being caught dead at a feygele shul. Yet having finally won the acceptance from mainstream Judaism that had so long eluded them, some gay Jews now feel excluded at CBST because of their Zionism.

“Controversy isn’t a bad thing,” Kleinbaum told me, when I asked for her reaction to Bridges’ resignation. Ginning up controversy seems to be something of a calling for Kleinbaum, who has worked as a progressive activist within the Jewish community and without, trying to win a respected place for LGBT Jews inside the broader Jewish world and sympathy for the Palestinian cause among her fellow gay Jews. The former struggle, needless to say, has been easier than the latter, not least because her advocacy on the Middle East often comes across as disproportionately critical of the Jewish state. A participant on the first trip she led to Israel on behalf of CBST nearly two decades ago claimed to have been “mortified” by her behavior. “It seemed as though the Rabbi and most of the people on the tour cried more for the Palestinians and other Arabs than they did for the Jews. … One of the people in the group grilled the person with whom we met about how an out gay person would be treated in the community. I was waiting for that question to be asked of the Palestinians with whom we met, but there was silence.”

Discussing her views on the Arab-Israeli conflict with me, Kleinbaum stated unequivocally that “Hamas is evil; there’s no question in my mind.” But she took issue with “many inaccuracies” in Bridges’ letter. The first such alleged mistake she mentioned concerned reading the names of Gaza civilians who perished during Protective Edge. “I just read the names of children, not general casualties, and also at the same time read names of Israeli soldiers as well,” she said. “I reject the idea that it’s impossible to be a supporter of Israel … and have compassion for Palestinians and their rights and humanity. These are two truths we can hold in our heads at the same time,” she said.

Kleinbaum saw the reading of the names of the Gazan dead as a demonstration of the responsibility to feel empathy for others, and she described those who disagree with her as lacking “compassion” for Palestinians. As for the rest of the criticisms directed at her, she dismissed them as attempts to shut down “debate” by people who deny the humanity of Palestinians. Her synagogue, she said, is “dedicated to creating an environment in which we can be debating these issues, welcoming multiple narratives and points of view. We believe in freedom of speech and there are some who believe that any expression of support for Palestinians is a betrayal of who we are as Jews. And I reject that.”

Yet Kleinbaum’s understanding of what sort of opinions ought be entertained by Jewish institutions is very liberal, both in the expansive and political sense of the word. Three years ago, she waded into a dispute involving gays and Jews that erupted after the New York City Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center agreed to host an event sponsored by an organization known as “Siege Busters,” which was then attempting to raise money in support of a flotilla to break the Israeli government’s military blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Given the Center’s role as a forum and events space for the gay community, it was hard to see what purpose was served by affiliating with such an outfit; Siege Busters’ identity as a “gay” organization is utterly incidental to its actual purpose: anti-Israel advocacy on behalf of the Jewish state’s most radical and determined enemies, who, for what it’s worth, aren’t particularly fond of the gays, either.

Later that same year, the Center decided to let another organization of dubious provenance and purpose, “Queers Against Israeli Apartheid,” use its building to host an event tied to Israel Apartheid Week. When gay Jews spoke out against the Center lending its imprimatur to such a group Kleinbaum defended its leadership and signed a petition in support of an “open center,” that is, one that provides radical activists, who happen to be gay, a forum to agitate for the destruction of the state of Israel. “The community center should be a place where all different points of view in the gay community have a chance to be heard,” she told the Forward. “I’m against censorship. I believe in the power of ideas to be debated openly and vigorously.”

A synagogue ‘where I feel I have to check my Zionism at the door.’

The following year, Kleinbaum traveled to the West Bank on a “queer delegation to Palestine” organized by Sarah Schulman, a professor at CUNY Staten Island and one of the leading opponents of so-called Israeli “pinkwashing,” that is, the supposed campaign by the Israeli government to mask its oppression of Palestinians by promoting its positive record on gay rights. (Schulman hosted a day-long conference on this obscure and concocted phenomenon last year, which I wrote about for Tablet at the time.) Kleinbaum was accompanied by a variety of other activists, including a particularly rabid New York transgender person named Pauline Park, whose Facebook page consists almost entirely of attacks on “Zionists” and Israeli “war criminals.” Park and Schulman, Bridges claims, have since used Kleinbaum as a Jewish fig leaf for their toxic agenda. The rabbi, he says, is “giving cover to people who have an anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish perspective so that they can say it’s kosher.” (In what might have been a subtle attempt to distance herself from her fellow travelers, so to speak, Kleinbaum neglected to sign an open letter they published at the conclusion of their trip, in which they accused Israel of participating in “global heterosexism,” denounced the “false labeling of Israeli culture as gay-friendly and Palestinian culture as homophobic,” and endorsed BDS.)

One of Kleinbaum’s loudest antagonists at the time of the Community Center controversy was Michael Lucas, a Russian-born, American-naturalized, Israel-loving gay pornographic film star and producer. Lucas, who acquired Israeli citizenship in 2009, has shown his love for Zion in many ways, most visibly his 2009 Men of Israel, the first skin flick—gay or straight—to be shot with an entirely Israeli (and Jewish) cast. “She bashes Israel all the time, making people get up and leave services,” Lucas alleged at the time, in a foretaste of what was to come.

Today, Lucas has seized upon Bridges’ resignation announcement, claiming it as vindication of his earlier criticism of the rabbi. “Why is she sending her bloody potatoes to Gaza?” he asked when I called him for an interview last week. Lucas suggests that the plight of the Yazidis, Kurds, and other threatened Middle Eastern minorities are more worthy of the congregation’s attention than the Palestinians, and suggests that Kleinbaum is a petty, publicity-seeking poseur. “She cares about Palestinians less than I care about Palestinians,” he suggested, “which is pretty bad.”

***

Much of the criticism directed at Kleinbaum has less to do with a specific set of views on Israel and more with the general tone set by the senior rabbi and the synagogue leadership. In addition to supporting the right of putatively “gay” organizations with strident anti-Israeli agendas to hijack the NYC gay center, Kleinbaum has also been outspoken in her criticism of Israel and its mainstream supporters not only within the synagogue walls but in the public square. In 2012, she wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times applauding fellow Manhattan congregation B’nai Jeshrun, whose lay leaders and rabbis had openly supported the United Nations vote upgrading Palestine to nonmember observer state status, contrary to the wishes of the Israeli government and the spirit of the Oslo Accords. In January, Kleinbaum signed an open letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, on whose transition team she served, protesting his meeting with a group of donors from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the largest American Jewish pro-Israel organization. “AIPAC speaks for Israel’s hard-line government and its right-wing supporters, and for them alone; it does not speak for us,” the missive declared. That same month, she signed an open letter entitled “Step by Step Toward Shalom with Iran” opposing additional sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Several years ago, CBST established what is now called the “Middle East & Me Committee,” to coordinate programming related to Israel and the region. If that name sounds like a strange appellation, it’s because it was the result of a torturous, almost absurd effort on behalf of CBST leaders: The original name for the committee was the “Israel/Palestine committee,” but “people had an issue with Israel being first,” said Tony Felzen, a congregant. Others were put off that the word “Israel” was even in the name.

Episodes like this, combined with Kleinbaum’s extracurricular activities, show how even liberal, mainstream supporters of a two-state solution can feel excluded. “CBST is incredibly special because it was specifically created to be a synagogue where you did not have to check your sexual identity at the door,” Felzen said. “However, it has sort of become a community where I feel I have to check my Zionism at the door.”

Jayson Littman, another congregant and the founder of HEBRO, a social organization for gay Jewish men, was selected by Kleinbaum to serve on the committee. “I jokingly told friends I was considered the right-winger because, well, I wanted Israel to exist,” he told me. The synagogue social justice coordinator seconded to manage the body has since left to work for Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that supports BDS. (Meanwhile, Rabbi David Dunn Bauer, CBST’s Director of Social Programming, sits on the JVP Rabbinical Council.) Although Littman acknowledges that the synagogue has an Israeli flag on the bimah and that Kleinbaum herself opposes BDS, “All the learning programs, all the drashes [sermons], all the events, all the authors, are about finding the problematic issues with Israel as a political state.”

Several present and former congregants who have raised concerns about Kleinbaum’s activism with her describe the typical response: polite acknowledgement of a difference of opinions, followed by no change in either the tenor or frequency of her public activity. Eyal Feldman, an Israeli-American and founder of Boy Butter lubricant, began attending High Holy Day and the occasional Friday night services at CBST soon after he moved to New York in 2000 primarily as a social activity. He “always felt a little bit uncomfortable with her politics,” but was willing to stick it out because he had made so many friends. Feldman—whose blog “shares his global adventures in fighting friction with a mix of social and personal lubrication”—however, “stopped going three years ago because of the very same reasons Bryan left the board. I found her to be political and not at all balanced. … I couldn’t sit there and listen to that because if my eyes rolled anymore they would have popped out of my head.”

***

Yet, for all the criticism leveled at the Israeli government and sympathy expressed for the Palestinians, CBST remains a Zionist synagogue. Reuven Greenwald, chair of the Middle East & Me Committee and a defender of Kleinbaum, said that CBST is one of the only synagogues, if not the only one, in the country to require people undergoing conversion to make a trip to Israel as part of the process. CBST’s annual celebration of Israeli independence, meanwhile, brought out a group of “queer, anti-pinkwashing” demonstrators to protest outside the synagogue last year, according to Littman. “We have some folks who are very pro-Israel, some folks very pro-Palestine, and some who take a more nuanced view,” Nathan Goldstein, the president of the CBST says of the congregation, “and it’s great where we can have a community with these complex conversations.”

The divide within CBST isn’t just a political one between mainstream supporters of Israel and more radical left-wing critics. There is also a gendered element. “The very uncomfortable truth about CBST is that people’s positions on Israel are closely correlated with their gender,” Littman told me. “It’s usually the gay men who strongly support Israel and the lesbians, queers, and trans folks who criticize Israel.” If the existence of this gulf between gay men and gay women is indeed true, it would be unfortunate, yet hardly surprising, news to anyone familiar with the ins and outs of gay political activism, where gay men and lesbians, despite heroic interludes of inspiring cooperation, have often warred with one another. (Kleinbaum was hired as CBST’s first, full-time rabbi in 1992, after AIDS had devastated the congregation’s mostly male lay leadership.)

‘I think Israel should be as open to criticism as God is.’

Today, CBST stands at an important crossroads. The synagogue led the way in moving gay Jews away from the margins of Jewish communal life. “The gay Jews have arrived,” is how one congregant and donor boasts of the progress. But but CBST’s leadership now threatens to isolate its constituents by legitimizing radical, anti-Israel political antics anathema to most Jews. Over the course of its four-decade existence, CBST had to function as a big tent, to serve as a home for the many gay Jews who did not feel welcome at the synagogues in which they had been raised. But now, with a plethora of gay-friendly synagogues, the need for a designated “gay synagogue” may have outlived its purpose, and CBST may soon become a victim of its own success. “CBST has done a very good job at helping gay Jews who feel disaffected,” Bridges told me. “But is also has to connect to the larger Jewish community and care about those concerns, and those concerns have to be first. If you’re only this universalist humanist, you could go to Unitarian Church, or if you really care about Palestinian issues, you could join Queers Against Israeli Apartheid.”

For her part, Kleinbaum views arguing about Israel in the same way that she does wrestling with God. “It’s kind of funny, you can go into any synagogue, you can say, ‘I hate God, I don’t believe in God, I’m very angry at God,’ and we as Jews would embrace that person and sit down and debate it and engage and study and deepen our understanding,” the rabbi said. “Nobody would say you can’t come into this synagogue because you don’t believe in God. I think Israel should be as open to criticism as God is.” Since Bridges announced his resignation, Kleinbaum told me, only three people have withdrawn their membership.

Listening to the complaints of some present and former congregants about Kleinbaum, the criticisms sounds familiar. “It’s about pushing a very particular form of political views on congregants and then choosing good, fair and honest people who are Jewishly educated and thoughtful about Israel and accusing them of being McCarthyites,” the former congregant, who has worked for prominent Jewish organizations, complained to me. It is the sort of grumbling that many Jews have about their rabbi’s politics (whether too right or too left), merely transposed onto a gay synagogue, with all of the pre-existing drama between lesbians and gay men. Appropriately, an old Jewish joke comes to mind: A Jew is found shipwrecked on a desert island. Over time, he built two synagogues for himself: The first in which he prayed, the second he refused to step foot in, even if you paid him. What the crisis at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah really shows is that gay Jews now have the luxury to kvetch about the same things as everyone else.

***

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A Zionist Porn Star, a Lube Merchant, and a Lesbian Rabbi Walk Into a Gay Synagogue…

Accepted by the mainstream Jewish community, some gays now feel excluded at New York’s premier LGBT synagogue