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OutFront: Lesbian Rabbi Fights Intolerance With Love

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum is spreading light this Hanukkah, not with a menorah, but with love.

Congregation Beit Simchat Torah celebrates Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum's 20 years of spiritual leadership. Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum

The firebrand lesbian rabbi of New York City’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the country’s largest LGBTQ synagogue, is bringing Jews and Muslims together to fight a rise in hate crime, which the F.B.I. reported has surged 6 percent in the U.S., particularly against Muslims. Kleinbaum said she is especially frightened over images of swastikas that have appeared on buildings and playgrounds throughout New York City, where she lives, since the presidential election in November.

“It’s absolutely horrifying, and that’s why we need each other more than ever,” Kleinbaum told NBC Out. “This is a global phenomenon we’re facing and as a religious person I need to join with those other religious groups who share my basic values of justice and God’s call to us to act in moral ways. And it goes across religious lines and it goes across countries.”

Under Kleinbaum’s leadership, the synagogue is combating the rise in hate crimes by uniting with the Islamic Society of New York University. In November, Kleinbaum and her clergy staff showed up to the group’s Friday prayer service to show their support.

“We handed out red roses, and we had signs [that said] ‘Jews stand with our Muslim neighbors,’” she said. Kleinbaum added that many in the prayer group shared their fears over President-elect Donald Trump’s proposals to create a Muslim registry and temporarily ban Muslim immigrants from entering the U.S.

Kleinbaum with congregation at Islamic Society of NYU. Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum

“These people coming to prayer service who were so terrified by the talk of a Muslim registry and anti-Muslim rhetoric coming out from Trump and his supporters were hugging us and crying and taking the flowers and taking selfies with us [and] asking if they could send pictures to their mothers or their sisters or their brothers to show that there was a community with them,” she said.

Kleinbaum said the Islamic group will honor her and her congregation during a gala it will hold in February.

“This is key to what we’re facing now — is to create communities in which we’re deeply connected, one with the other,” she said. She said her congregation is also offering a training program that teaches people how to respond to hate crimes.

The rabbi is preparing to lead her 25th Hanukkah service for the congregation on Friday. She said she gets emails from LGBTQ people in the Jewish community who are estranged from their families or aren’t welcome to worship at other synagogues.

“We have people who had to marry when they were younger and had children in a heterosexual family and then came out later,” she said. “We have a grandmother in our congregation whose child won’t let her see her grandchild because she’s a lesbian.”

The 57-year-old lesbian rabbi has received her own share of intolerance over the years.

“I’ve had a lot of hate mail in my time,” Kleinbaum said. “I’ve had a lot of hostility directed towards me, but I don’t focus on that. And that’s what I’m trying to bring to my community now.”

The activist and spiritual leader, who Newsweek named among 50 most influential rabbis in America, has been engaged in protests around racial, social and economic justice since she was an undergraduate at Barnard College. Kleinbaum said she’s been arrested 15 times for civil disobedience. She spent a month in federal prison for engaging in anti-war protests outside the Pentagon in 1981. Most recently, the rabbi led her congregation in lobbying for marriage equality, and called on the LGBTQ community to make gun control a gay issue in the wake of the Pulse Nightclub massacre. Kleinbaum said she sees her role as a spiritual leader and activist as interwoven.

Rabbi Kleinbaum with Rev. Pat Bumgardner speaking at Stonewall. Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum

“That’s at the center of my spiritual life. I believe in as deeply in prayer and ritual as I do in social justice,” she said. “I think one feeds the other very deeply.”

Kleinbaum arrived at ‎Congregation Beit Simchat Torah as its senior rabbi and sole staff person at the height of the AIDS crisis in 1992, which she said killed 40 percent of her congregation. She presided over their funerals. “I was burying people all the time and it wasn’t the older parent or the random tragic car accident, it was the regular drum beat of young people dying from AIDS, and a Jewish community that was largely silent in a larger world that was largely in denial, and often discriminatory,” she said. The congregation persevered through the epidemic and has grown under her leadership to about 600 regular members.

Kleinbaum is currently organizing a sold-out bus trip to the Women’s March on Washington in January. She said she believes people “are put on this earth for a purpose” and “if we’re alive right now, that purpose is clear.”

“I want to create the kind of world I believe in, and I want to actively be part of that every day of my life,” Kleinbaum concluded.

(OutFront is a weekly NBC Out series profiling LGBTQ people who are making a positive difference in the community.)

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