In Israel, New York Gay Rabbi Fires Back at Critics

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum was chastised during the Gaza war for her recognition of Palestinian suffering. This week, she was surprised to find debate easier in Israel than among liberal U.S. Jews.

Moti Milrod

The rabbi of the largest gay synagogue in the world learned this on the road here this week: It’s much easier to voice criticism of Israel to Israelis than it is to progressive-minded New Yorkers.

Sharon Kleinbaum, the rabbi of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) since 1992, decided to make her most recent trip to Israel in order to “soak up the mood” in the country, as she describes it, in the aftermath of the war. What she discovered along the way, she says, is an openness to debate that no longer exists in her community back home.

“It’s been so refreshing,” she told Haaretz during an interview at a roadside cafe. “In New York, if you bring up anything that is not perceived to be the official Israeli position, it’s very hard. I know it’s been a terrible summer in Israel too for expressing ideas, but I think that now the war is over, Israel is starting to return to criticism of this and debate of that – it’s a level of openness that doesn’t exist in New York.”

Kleinbaum should know. In recent weeks, she’s been vilified by members of her own congregation, as well as many others in the New York Jewish community, for using the pulpit to deliver a political message. During a recent prayer service, Kleinbaum read out the names not only of Israeli casualties during the latest war, but also the names of Palestinian children killed in the fighting. For a member of the board and several members of the congregation who resigned in protest, Kleinbaum had crossed a red line. On social media sites she was accused of serving as a mouthpiece for Hamas, as well as “less polite things,” she reports.

Considering the backlash, does she have any regrets? Most definitely not, insists Kleinbaum. “I feel that if I, as a rabbi, do not raise the moral issues facing us as a people and the need for compassion even in times of war, then I don’t feel I’m doing my job.”

It’s not the first time events playing out in the Middle East have stirred up emotions and controversy in the otherwise famously liberal New York Jewish community. But something was different about this round, she reflects. “The degree to which the conversation has been shut down was maybe the most disturbing thing about this war, and somehow it feels like things have gotten worse – maybe because of social media.”

Which is why she felt so inspired during a trip she took to the south of the country earlier this week. She visited residents of Sderot, as well as several agricultural communities on the Gaza border that had been under constant Hamas attack during the seven-week war.

“This guy I met at [moshav] Netiv Ha’asara, which is right on the border, told me he’s angry that the government’s reaction to all this is to hide behind more concrete, rather than reaching a political solution to the problem,” she says. “When I told people down there what I’d been through at my own synagogue, they were absolutely shocked. Americans assume, by and large, that there is only one voice in Israel, and I was very moved to discover during my trip down south that there is certainly more than one voice.”

Along with traveling to the Gaza border, Kleinbaum has met with a diverse group of Israelis whose views span the spectrum of “let’s reoccupy Gaza” to “we’ve got to sit down with Hamas,” as she puts it. They include the family of a congregant from the small southern town of Gan Yavne; a group of teachers; the director of the human rights organization B’Tselem; gay rights activists in Tel Aviv; and a gay reservist who saw action in the war.

“As a rabbi in America, I really don’t think I’d be able to have something in-depth to say to my congregants without actually being here,” she explains, defining the purpose of her trip.

A celebrity rabbi of sorts, Kleinbaum has made Newsweek’s prestigious lists of “50 most influential rabbis in America” and “150 Women Who Shake the World.” She grew up in New Jersey, where she attended an Orthodox yeshiva high school before finding her calling in progressive Judaism. After graduating Barnard College and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, she became the first rabbi installed at CBST, taking over at the height of the AIDS crisis. The congregation recently celebrated its 40th anniversary.

Does Kleinbaum agree with other liberal Jews finding it increasingly difficult to love Israel these days?

“I think it’s like with family,” she responds. “Do we love everything about the people we love most in the world? Not all the time. Not at every moment. I feel now, more than ever, we need to be able to stand with Israel, but not with the Israel of a certain what I believe to be misguided and shallow point of view. As a progressive Zionist, I’m deeply committed to the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel and the values it represents. I want to fight along with the Israelis who share my values, and there are many. I’ve met so many this week, which makes me very proud.”

When asked if she supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kleinbaum is noncommittal.

“I’m not a sophisticated politician,” she says. “I don’t know what the answer is. I do know that the answer lies in a deep conversation, which includes sitting down and really trying to understand the other side. I’ve been struck, both in Israel and America, about how little both Israeli Jews and American Jews understand the Palestinians. There’s a moderate middle it behooves us to reach out to. Radical Islam will only be defeated by moderate Muslims.”

Does she believe the Israeli government engages in “pink-washing” – flaunting its record on gay rights to distract attention from its violations of Palestinian rights?

“I happen to be someone who can hold two truths at once,” she responds. “I don’t think the granting of gay rights was done to create a fig leaf, and I’m proud of what Israel has done for gay rights. But at the same time, I do believe that Israel violates the human rights of Palestinians every single day. Both things are true.”