Interview with Sharon Kleinbaum, April 2015
Senior Rabbi at CBST (Congregation Beit Simchat Torah
Tell us a little bit about your involvement in the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
It's impossible to overstate the role of AIDS in the early life of CBST, when the disease claimed 25% of the men in our congregation. I arrived on August 1, 1992 as CBST's first rabbi, and a month later I led the funeral service for the immediate past president of the congregation, Mel Rosen, who was the first executive director of GMHC. AIDS was one of the most important factors leading CBST to hire a rabbi. Someone needed to handle the spiritual crisis exacerbated by the constant drumbeat of illness, death and bereavement. I was doing more funerals than other life cycle events, burying people my own age, while trying to create a community of people not completely diminished by this burden. Jewish funeral homes wouldn't handle with dignity someone who died of AIDS. I had to fight the funeral homes to get respectful Jewish funerals for our congregants. There were often two different memorial services, one arranged by the family that did not mention the words "gay" or "AIDS" and then ours, where we could acknowledge him in his wholeness.
Did AIDS find its way into the liturgical life of the congregation?
Yes. While the epidemic was transformational for our congregation, eventually the deaths abated. I stopped looking out into the congregation to see who looked sick, who was missing. The constant funerals stopped. We made several quilts, one for the NAMES Project, and two others we still display at our services. Each year on the Friday closest to World AIDS Day, we have a special shabbat service that features prominent speakers from the HIV world, including from an international perspective. We also added special HIV related readings to our siddur, our prayer book remembrances from congregants, as well as poems and literary and dramatic excerpts by writers such as Tony Kushner, William Finn and Thom Gunn which we read together at services throughout the year. At the service, we ask members to share their remembrances of congregants who died of AIDS. Together, we take on the sacred responsibility of remembering our dead.
How is the congregation dealing with the epidemic today?
People with HIV in our congregation still need support, spiritual and otherwise, and congregants need to know how to protect themselves from contracting the virus, especially younger people who did not live through those terrible times. Our Director of Social Justice Programming, Rabbi David Bauer, has taken on this role and is creating some novel programs, including the first ever Jewish safer sex campaign, funded by UJA. How the times have changed. Part of this program is condom distribution. Unbeknownst to her parents, our Associate Rabbi's four-year-old daughter took a handful of condoms to her preschool in Park Slope and distributed them to her friends. When the principal called CBST to speak to her parent, she said the young girl had said she was giving the condoms out to "help keep grownups safe and healthy."