Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of CBST Looks Back

by Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum

Rabbi Kleinbaum serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah and is regarded as one of the most important rabbis in America. The national Jewish weekly, The Forward , named her as one of the country’s 50 top Jewish leaders and The New York Jewish Week identified her as one of the 45 leading young American Jewish leaders in New York.  NEWSWEEK magazine named her #17 on its list of “Top 50 American Rabbis”; she is also the highest ranked woman on the list. The subject of a profile in The New York Times, among many other titles, Rabbi Kleinbaum has lectured and published widely.

To say that NYC has changed for GLBT people since 1986 is an understatement.  It was late in 1985 that Ronald Reagan used the word AIDS publically for the first time.  In 1985, Ryan White was a 13 year old boy with AIDS banned from classes by school officials. Rock Hudson died from AIDS becoming the first public figure with AIDS known to most Americans. We now have more rights than we could have imagined, more children than we dreamed, trans people are now an important part of our community, many “mainstream” religious institutions and organizations accept us, there are many openly gay elected officials….

And yet and yet.  We still don’t have a cure for AIDS, there is still a serious abuse of drugs and alcohol in our community, the right wing is louder and better organized in its attacks on us and the shadows of all those we loved and lost haunt our streets and our homes.

We have learned to mourn. And we have learned to celebrate.  May the memories of those we lost be for a blessing in our lives and our lives a blessing to our memories.

My congregation is very much a microcosm of New York – I arrived at CBST in the midst, in the midst of the worse of the AIDS epidemic.  And we were decimated by that moment in time.  We had memorial services every other week.   We’ve lost 25% of our community to AIDS and we know many many more are still HIV +.  AIDS was the cloud that was over us in every service, at every event, in every setting.  Every week would see another empty seat, another face who was integral the community lost.  Memorial services were the primary social event at that time.    That’s where we would see each other, where we could catch up.  AIDS was prominent focus in everything we did as a congregation. When I first came to CBST, I knew then that CBST once we could find our footing, if we would survive as a community, the AIDS epidemic, we could move forward and take what we learned and transform our community and we have.

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