Hillary Clinton to Honor Rabbi’s Silver Anniversary at New York’s LGBT Synagogue

Back in 1992 the congregation was so small that Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum was its first paid staffer. Now it's so popular it has to hold High Holiday services at the Javits Center

Hillary Clinton speaking in Little Rock, Arkansas, November 18, 2017.
Kelly P. Kissel / AP

NEW YORK — Hillary Clinton is slated to headline the 25th anniversary celebration of Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum’s leadership of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, New York’s LGBT synagogue.

The former presidential candidate will be the keynote speaker at the gala this Monday, which is titled “Bringing Vision to Life” and is intended to raise enough money to retire the mortgage on the Midtown Manhattan building that the congregation moved into in 2016. Congregants Andy Cohen, the Bravo television host and father of the “Real Housewives” franchise, and actress Cynthia Nixon of “Sex and the City” and many productions since, will emcee the evening.

Over 700 people have bought tickets to the sold-out event, which will be held at the nearby Fashion Institute of Technology.

Though Clinton doesn’t often speak publicly about her religious life, Kleinbaum hopes she will talk about “the progressive religious values that animate her,” the rabbi said in an interview. “I know her to be a deeply religious person in a progressive way and we don’t have a lot of public figures who can model that.”

This will be the second time Kleinbaum shares the stage with the former U.S. secretary of state. The rabbi officiated at the funeral in September of Edith Windsor, a member of the congregation. Windsor was called “the mother of marriage equality” after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in her favor in 2013 following her lawsuit against the government for not recognizing her marriage to a woman whom she wed in Canada.

Clinton spoke at Windsor’s funeral too, urging those present to apply her model of optimistic perseverance. “She refused to give up on the promise of America,” Clinton said at the time. “There wasn’t a cynical, defeatist bone in her body. That’s especially important for us to remember now. Through her determination and sheer force of will she brought us another step closer to that more perfect union.”

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum in Israel, September 2, 2014.
Moti Milrod

A rabbi and three drag queens

Before that, the closest Kleinbaum came to Clinton was when she offered Rosh Hashanah remarks to Jewish election staffers at Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters in 2016. Many years earlier, Kleinbaum had taught Hebrew school to Heather Stone, who worked as chief of staff to Clinton’s campaign manager. Kleinbaum’s partner is Randi Weingarten, a former labor leader who served as a Clinton surrogate during the presidential campaign.

Clinton is delivering the keynote without being paid her customary fee, which has reportedly run as high as $335,000.

Kleinbaum told Haaretz she never imagined being a congregational rabbi, let alone being at the same synagogue for a quarter century. She may have one of the most unusual rabbinates in America. A few weeks ago she guest starred on Bravo’s late-night program “Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen.” Kleinbaum was wedged between three towering drag queens and was asked to judge who had the best costume.

The morning she spoke with Haaretz she had just returned to the synagogue from “Good Day New York.” She was featured on the famously conservative television network in a segment about blessing animals. Asked how it felt to be on a Fox program, the often-arrested politically active progressive rabbi said with a laugh: “It’s nice to be asked for something besides ‘gay.’”

A bit of Aaron Copland

Because Kleinbaum is a classical music lover, at the gala the Greenwhich Village Orchestra will perform “Lincoln Portrait” by Aaron Copland. Copland, notes Kleinbaum, was a gay Jew who when he wrote "Lincoln" in 1942 “was reaching back to the 1860s and Lincoln speaking words of hope and inspiration in the midst of despair and fear.”

Edith Windsor, an LGBT rights activist who died in September 2017, New York, October 18, 2012.
Richard Drew / AP

Congregation Beth Simchat Torah had been around for almost two decades in 1992 when Kleinbaum was installed as rabbi; the congregation was so small that Kleinbaum was its first paid staffer. Today it has three full-time rabbis, two rabbinical interns, a cantor and a musical director.

Back in 1992, membership was 80 percent men, Kleinbaum said. Today it is evenly split between men and women and there are lots of families. The congregation will run its first family trip to Israel next August.

Now the congregation has some 700 dues-paying members and over 3,500 attendees at High Holy Day services, which are held at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center to accommodate them all. While the congregation was strictly for gay and lesbian Jews in 1992, today about 15 percent of its members are straight, as is the assistant rabbi and a board member, said Kleinbaum.

But legal and social challenges to the LGBT community are far from over. On Tuesday, the morning after the congregation’s gala, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case revolving around a Christian bakeshop owner’s refusal to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The baker said baking the couple a cake would violate his religious freedom. If the court rules in his favor, this “would destroy discrimination law,” wrote law professors in Slate magazine.

The case is “happening in front of a Supreme Court that’s increasingly nerve-racking for us,” Kleinbaum said. “We are clinging to each other in this tsunami of Trump’s America.”

In her eulogy for Edith Windsor, Clinton said that “in this moment when so much hard-fought progress hangs in the balance, it is up to us to pick up where she left off.”

A bequest Windsor left to Congregation Beth Simchat Torah will be announced at the gala.