Synagogue as Spiritual Community

Remarks by Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum to celebrate CBST’s 26th Anniversary

I believe in cosmic influences: I believe that we influence the cosmos, that we influence the world. I believe that what you do, what I do, what we do, matters; our lives, our actions, our words, even our thoughts can make a difference. I believe that we are all here-every one of us-for the sake of what we can do together. Together, we can change the world.

Every Friday evening of the year, hundreds of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews come together at CBST to celebrate Kabbalat Shabbat, to welcome the arrival of the Sabbath. With us on any given Friday night may be some who remember CBST’s first Kabbalat Shabbat on a cold, rainy, nasty Friday night in February twenty-six years ago—they were there. With us may be some who are entering a synagogue for the first time since leaving home or since their bar or bat mitzvah. Others may be coming into a synagogue for the first time in their lives. For some, coming in means coming out, openly acknowledging their sexuality, for the first time. They too will change the world.

As CBST’s rabbi, I owe far too much to far too many people to be able to thank everyone as I should, but here in particular I would like thank my partner Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig and our children, Liba and Molly, without whose love and support I cannot imagine my life as an out lesbian rabbi of an openly gay synagogue; Richard Howe, kindred spirit and a writer without whom this and other papers would never be written; and our entire congregation, without whose extraordinary efforts over the past twenty-six years there would be no CBST spiritual community to write about. I would like also now to remember two people, Mel Rosen, z’’l, who brought me to CBST, and Irving Cooperberg, z’’l, whose still lively spirit continues to sustain my own.

In the seven years that I have been CBST’s rabbi, I have officiated at the funerals of leaders of both the New York and the national gay movements who, following in the footsteps of the Jewish union organizers of a century before, believed they had an obligation to change the world—and they did. I have married couples who understood that such a ceremony was not only an expression of love but also a political act of defiance against a society that still does not accept relationships between same-sex couples as equally valid to those of heterosexuals. These couples are changing the world. I have given blessings over newborns and newly adopted infants of same-sex couples who believe that raising a family is a part of their Jewish heritage that is legitimately theirs, even if the racial and gender make-up of their family does not reflect the community around them. These parents are changing the world; their children and their children’s children will change it even more.

One of the very greatest of our many rabbinic legends tells us that the first light God created filled the void so fully that there was no room left over for the rest of creation. So God gathered up the first light and put it away in jars to keep it for another occasion. But this first light was so strong that it broke the jars and got away, leaving behind only their scattered shards. These broken shards are our world, and our job is to mend it. The great rabbis of our tradition tell us we are not obligated to complete this work—tikkun olam , they called it, the mending of the world—but we are not on that account excused from it either.

How do you mend a broken world? How can we live through the brokenness? How do we get past the feeling that we are caught in the midst of a second mabool, a second Flood, whether we experience it as lesbians or gays or women or Jews or as African Americans or people with AIDS or Kosovars—or even as ordinary middle class Americans with a nagging sense that we’ve gotten just about everything we could ever really want in life except the sense of meaning and purpose that would make it all worthwhile? How do we get past the feeling that God has forgotten the covenant with Noah, has forgotten the promise of the rainbow, has forgotten us? We can only do what Noah did: we can build a tevah, an ark to help carry us through the Flood of our times, both in a personal sense and also in the larger sense of our lives, the historical and global sense. This ark is community, and Congregation Beth Simchat Torah is such an ark, a spiritual community, in every sense of the word.

I did not become a rabbi in order to be a salesman for Judaism. I became a rabbi because I believe in the meaning and power of prayer and the presence of God in our lives. I did not become a rabbi in order to be a politician or a social worker. I became a rabbi because I believe in the power of religious community to overcome the culture of despair, devoid of meaning and values, in which we find ourselves.

I certainly did not become a rabbi as the result of a positive childhood experience of my religion. After eight years of three-day-a-week religious school, I emerged from my childhood ignorant of my faith, illiterate in the texts of my tradition, and distant from my God. The synagogue in which I was raised was, unfortunately, typical of most synagogues then and, alas, even now. It represented what I can only call “pediatric” religion—everything is geared for children. Families join only because membership is required to have their children participate in the bar or bat mitzvah process. Parents bring their children to synagogue, drop them off, and leave.

One of the more sobering patterns that emerged from a 1990 study of the national Jewish population conducted by the Council of Jewish Federations was that this kind of childhood experience does more to alienate people from their faith tradition than to attach them. The messages of pediatric religion are all too clear: that religion has nothing meaningful to do with the adult world, that religion does not inform decision making or provide either comfort or inspiration, that religion is an obligation and only done for the sake of the children, and that once you are no longer a child, your only connection to the Jewish community will be to do the same thing to your child.

Music is very special to me in the way that only a love found later in life can be. Growing up I was never musical, and in college and at rabbinical school I never had time for it, but then through my partner and her great love of music I came to realize music was a gateway to transcendence all its own. So it wasn’t long after I came to CBST that I asked Joyce Rosenzweig to start a chorus.

Two years later, in 1995, the CBST Community Chorus made its public debut at a chamber music concert organized by CBST to celebrate the Sabbath of Song, Shabbat Shirah, our people’s traditional celebration of our escape from Egypt and the song we sang after getting safely across the Red Sea. Since then, our Shabbat Shirah concert has become an annual event that has packed the house at the big New York synagogues that have so generously made their space available to us for this event. And this past summer the CBST Community Chorus had the honor of opening the Tenth Annual North American Jewish Choral Festival at the famed Nevele Hotel in the Catskills, where its performances, in particular of selections from Bloch’s “Sacred Service,” astounded a professional and semi-professional audience of Jewish choral ensembles from all over North America and Europe.

CBST hosts a constant stream of gay and lesbian Jewish writers, singers, artists, and film-makers from around the world, who drop in on us whenever they are in New York in order to read, sing, dance, show their work, and talk with us about it. CBST’s own congregants are themselves prominent in many dimensions of New York City’s cultural life. And CBST itself has always been blessed with fine cantors from our congregation who have brought to our services the many rich and varied musical traditions of our people.

Learning is a mitzvah—in both senses of the word: as a commandment and as a blessing—of such importance that Jews have argued for millennia about which is greater, study or action. Our tradition leans towards study, on the grounds that learning leads to action, and this just shows how inseparable study and action are for us. Learning is felt by many to be a form of worship, and the synagogue has almost always also been a beit midrash, a house of study. At difficult times in our history there have even been rabbis who chose to go without a synagogue in order to keep a house of study.

Our tradition of study at CBST began in our very first year with classes in Hebrew, Torah, and Talmud. In the interval, classes in every aspect of Judaism and Yiddishkeit as well as our lesbian and gay heritage have become major feature of life in the CBST community. Last year, with the help of a grant from the UJA Federation, we created our Lehrhaus Judaica adult education program which offered over fifty courses attended by some four hundred students. Last year’s courses ranged from Yiddish for beginners to advanced Talmud to “Adam & Steve”—an exploration of Biblical attitudes towards homosexuality. This year’s Lehrhaus promises to reach an even greater number of students with an even broader range of courses.

For the past two years, CBST has sponsored a weekend course of intense study with a leading scholar visiting us from the Jewish academic community. In the fall of 1997, our first Visiting Scholar, Professor and Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, taught Jewish theology to nearly one hundred CBST members. Last year, Professor and Rabbi Burton Vysotsky of New York’s own Jewish Theological Seminary shared with us his innovative approaches to reading the Bible not as ancient literature but as a contemporary text profoundly relevant to life in the modern world. This year we are looking forward to having composer, performer, and Jewish Renewal movement leader Rabbi Shefa Gold as our third annual scholar-in-residence.

When CBST celebrated its first Kabbalat Shabbat on that February night twenty-six years ago, fifteen people showed up. The following year, about a hundred came to our first High Holy Days services. This year, over three thousand people attended our Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur services. It is our long standing tradition at CBST to offer all of our services, including our High Holy Days services, at no charge, either to our members or to the members of our wider community, whether lesbian and gay and Jewish or not. Our commitment to this open door tradition is deeply rooted in our personal experience of the many closed doors—family, school, work, synagogue—that we have encountered as lesbian and gay Jews, and we are determined that no one shall ever find our doors at CBST closed to them.

Many of us only began to accept our own sexuality after we walked through the doors of CBST on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur or on some Friday evening during the year. Many of us have found CBST to be a profoundly Jewish community; many have stayed and now call CBST their spiritual home. Over eight hundred of us have become active members. Last year thirty-two volunteer committees produced more than two hundred religious services and nearly three hundred educational, cultural, social, and political events. This boundless energy and commitment has made CBST a major presence in the lesbian and gay Jewish community world-wide and an important voice in the world-wide dialogue on the nature of religious community.

Some say that a synagogue is not a place for politics but a place to go deep inside ourselves and to forget the world outside; some say a synagogue is a place to find comfort for our own pain, not to expose ourselves to the pain of others. If this were true, then I say we should close our synagogue doors and do something useful like make the space into a parking lot. The vision of being Jewish is not just about taking care of our individual souls. The Children of Israel who entered into God’s covenant at Sinai did so as a people, a community, not as a collection of individual souls, and every Jew’s relationship to God is mediated by the community. From the moment we are named, however, we are also, as Jews, a part of the covenantal community itself. And this covenant means that there is obligation from the side of the individual to the side of the community and back again. This doesn’t mean that we don’t constantly try to deepen our internal lives as individuals, because, after all, if we don’t have a rich religious life of our own, we aren’t likely to find the energy and the commitment and vision for the very hard and discouraging work of mending the world.

The life of lesbian and gay Jewish spiritual communities is a political challenge to the mainstream of our society; it is also a moral challenge to the mainstream of our society’s religious discourse. In a society that tries to ignore us and would prefer to exclude us, lesbian and gay synagogues are an increasingly visible and undeniable social and religious reality. In a society that does not recognize same-sex marriage, our couples marry. In a society that considers homosexuality a threat to traditional family values, our congregants are raising children, and raising them in one of the world’s greatest religious traditions.

In a religious culture that still debates and largely opposes the ordination of openly gay clergy, we count a half a dozen out rabbis among our CBST membership and have seen half a dozen more undertake to train for a career in the rabbinate. In a spiritual landscape that has been largely divvied up among the religious right, new age searchers, and the prevailing secular culture, lesbian and gay synagogues represent a vital religious alternative, putting forward the model of thriving lesbian and gay communities based on the traditional values of organized, institutional religion. In the face of the religious right’s vigorous efforts to co-opt and dictate the terms of the dialogue of organized religion in America, our communities are living proof that the spiritual resources of traditional religion are not the exclusive preserve of one particular segment of society or of one particular view of the nature of religion and the religious life.

Like all my openly lesbian and gay colleagues, I am constantly called upon to give advice and support to my heterosexual colleagues both in other synagogues and in Christian churches as they grow in their determination to acknowledge, celebrate, and honor the life cycle events of their homosexual congregants. For the past year I have also participated in a national roundtable of liberal religious leaders sponsored by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to address the religious right. As one of a growing number of lesbian and gay rabbis who are finding our voices and the forums in which we can be heard, being the openly lesbian leader of an openly gay religious community reinforces my individual efforts to address the political and religious challenges facing our community. Lesbian and gay synagogues such as CBST are a constant reminder to the world at large that being gay is not a passing fad, that being openly homosexual and connected to traditional religious practice is not a contradiction in terms, and that a religious community can be something altogether different from what either the secular society at large or the religious right would lead one to believe.

A year ago CBST celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. Recently somebody asked me what I thought I would see on our fiftieth, and I have to admit, I had to stop and think about it. What took me by surprise and made me stop and think was that the first thing that came to my mind was what I didn’t see. I didn’t see a building, although we desperately need one and I hope and pray that we shall have one soon. I didn’t see a staff of assistant rabbis, teachers, social workers, administrators, and office assistants, although we need all of them as well. I didn’t see a grand piano, although I dream of the day when our music program will have one of its very own. I didn’t see the million and a half Jews living in the greater New York metropolitan area—who can imagine a million and a half people?—or even the many among them who are lesbian or gay or bisexual or transgender and who may still be unable to go somewhere where they can be both gay and Jewish together.

What I do see are children, children and teen-agers and young adults and not-so-young adults and parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews and cousins and friends and lovers. What I see is a CBST in which at all of these ages all of these relationships among lesbian and gay Jews are as natural and worthy as life itself. I see a CBST with a Hebrew school that is not a pediatric service for our parents but an integral part of our communal life together. I see a CBST equipped to offer the fullest range of pastoral services to meet the needs of our community. I see a CBST that sponsors hostels for the elderly and hospices for the dying and a CBST that—in keeping with a venerable Jewish tradition—has its own cemetery. I see a CBST that attracts the whole greater New York metropolitan area to its Jewish learning center and that invites Jewish scholars of the highest caliber from all over the world to pursue their specialties as CBST-sponsored scholars in residence. I see a CBST with ties to hundreds of American synagogues as a result of its ongoing and expanding rabbinic internship program. I see a CBST that sponsors a permanent center for the arts in the gay and lesbian Jewish community. I see a CBST that is an intellectual force to be reckoned with in the Jewish world at large and that is a leader in the movement to bring the theology of community from the margins of society towards the center of our national—and international—religious life. I see a CBST—and a world—whose children’s children may never know what it is to be rejected for being who they are.

We are an unaffiliated, non-denominational synagogue for lesbian and gay and bisexual and transgender Jews. This is where we began, this is who we are, and this is what is and must always be the cornerstone of all our work. Yet the spirit of CBST attracts heterosexuals and non-Jewish people to our congregation as well. We welcome them in the same way we welcome everyone else: whatever your sexual orientation and whatever your relationship to Judaism, you are welcome to join our community.

In the same spirit, CBST also welcomes the many visitors from innovative congregations all over the world who come to us for a weekend or a week in order to take back to their own communities whatever they can learn about how our community works that might also work for theirs. Some of our visitors are gay, some are straight, some are Jewish, and some are from other faith traditions. They come to us not because—or not only because—we are gay and Jewish, but because we have become for them a working model of what can be achieved, socially, politically, and spiritually, through religious community. For in a larger sense, the issues of our lives as lesbian and gay Jews—the issues of healing, of purpose, of meaning, of community, of holiness—are also the world’s, which we lesbian and gay Jews only experience a little more acutely perhaps than other people and into which we thereby maybe gain a little special insight. This insight is not only a gift but also a special obligation: it is what we uniquely bring, by virtue of who we are, to the greater task of tikkun olam , of mending the world.

Even ma’asu habonim haitah l’rosh pinah , said the Psalmist, the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.

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