Stonewall at 50: Jewish LGTBQ Activists in NYC Reflect on How Life Has Changed for the Community

June 28, 2019

By Danielle Ziri

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum
Spiritual leader at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah

Anyone who has ever visited Midtown’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah will recognize the place as very welcoming. Something about the combination of modern architecture and mid-century retro furniture, along with Pride flags on the walls, make you feel at ease.

The woman heading this congregation, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, 59, shares a similar skill. “This is my 27th year at CBST,” she smiles, sitting behind a marble desk in her warmly furnished office.

The synagogue was founded by the local gay community in 1973, just a few years after the riots occurred at the Stonewall Inn a 10-minute subway ride away. Although today it is a vibrant congregation, the circumstances were much darker when Kleinbaum first arrived in August 1992: The AIDS epidemic was devastating the community.

“Forty percent of CBST died from AIDS,” she reveals. “It was basically 16 or 17 years where, if you had gotten an AIDS diagnosis, it was a death sentence. If you got diagnosed with full-blown AIDS, it was six months to a year at most.”

Kleinbaum officiated at several funerals during that first month — including that of the congregation’s former president, Melvin Rosen.

“It is impossible to overstate the impact this had on the community,” she says. New York “was the epicenter of AIDS, and my job really was to deal with the congregation and the community that was sick or dying or mourning or taking care of the sick.”

Through that difficult period, the congregation tried to find ways to cope with the tragedy and come together at a time when, Kleinbaum says, the larger Jewish community had abandoned LGBTQ Jews.

“When I first came to New York, I had to fight with the funeral home here because they were not doing Jewish burial stuff,” she recalls. “Anybody who died from AIDS was kept in a plastic body bag and nobody would touch them because of the fear of contamination.”

But the stigma and isolation succeeded in bringing the community closer. Kleinbaum says that CBST members at the time made a commitment to show up on Friday nights “no matter what,” and to “never turn Shabbat dinners into memorial services, to maintain a sense of joy.”

That ability to celebrate the positive in the darkest of times is “in the DNA” of this community and still prevails today, states Kleinbaum.

Since the Stonewall riots in 1969, Kleinbaum says life has been “transformed” at CBST. In many ways, she believes, the congregation can be viewed as a “microcosm of what was going on in the LGBTJewish world. When I was ordained as a rabbi in 1990, there were no out LGBT rabbis working in the Jewish community.”

Indeed, when she applied to rabbinical school in 1984, Kleinbaum was forced to keep her sexuality a secret. “The Reform movement was still doing psychological tests on anybody who applied to rabbinical school — and if they thought you were gay, you wouldn’t get in no matter what your other qualifications were,” she recounts. “The Conservative movement wasn’t even ordaining women.”

Even a liberal community like CBST has seen major changes since its foundation. “When it started out, it was mostly men,” Kleinbaum says. “There were no children here in CBST 50 years ago. There was no concept of marriage either religiously or civilly; there was no concept of trans or nonbinary, or the kind of re-understanding of gender that now exists. Science hadn’t caught up to all the different ways that babies can be created, so both the technology and laws were against us forming families.”

Now, though, CBST is a family synagogue with many members whose children attend its Hebrew school or teen programs.

“In 1973, people had to choose: either be Jewish or be gay — you couldn’t do both,” says Kleinbaum. “Not a single synagogue, not a single rabbi, not a single Jewish organization anywhere in the Jewish world accepted that gay people could be equal to straight people.”

CBST’s first ever Shabbat service took place in February 1973. The original group didn’t think too big: They bought some challah, candlesticks and other essentials, and organized a small dinner. To invite people, they placed a two-inch (five-centimeter) ad in the Village Voice newspaper that read: “Gay Synagogue. Friday night service and Oneg Shabbat Feb. 9 at 8:00 P.M.” with an address listed on 28th Street.

Eight months later, the Yom Kippur War broke out in Israel. According to Kleinbaum, that crisis led many people who had previously left Judaism or never connected to the community to want to identify with it. “That’s when CBST really took off,” she says.

The synagogue also serves as a resource for others when LGBTQ-related questions arise. With an ultra-Orthodox rabbi on the staff, CBST aims to provide answers for Orthodox Jews who come out and guide Orthodox community leaders on the issue.

Kleinbaum, who just returned to the United States after participating in this month’s Jerusalem’s Pride parade, stresses that the fight for gay rights should not be separated from the fight for other groups’ rights.

“I don’t want to be part of a gay rights movement that says, ‘We’ve got the right to serve in the army, we’ve got gay marriage here in America and Israel is doing great so [let’s stop fighting].’ It’s about transforming the world so that human rights is a real value for everybody,” she sums up.


Idit Klein
Founding executive director of Keshet, an organization working for LGBTQ equality in all facets of Jewish life

Idit Klein still vividly remembers the first time she walked into Shabbat dinner at Yale University’s Hillel building in 1993, holding her girlfriend’s hand.

“I just felt the stares,” she recalls. “I felt the weight of being the only openly same-sex couple there.”

Until then, the weekly Shabbat dinner was Klein’s safe space on campus. But in that moment, she knew it had been compromised. “I never felt any sense of internal contradiction around being queer and Jewish, I didn’t doubt my place in Jewish life,” she says. “However, when I came out, I soon discovered that many people around me in the Jewish community expected me to doubt my place.”

That disappointment was more of a defining and painful moment for Klein, 46, than her actual coming out, during which her family strongly supported her.

The stark experience of the “enormous gulf” that existed between her expectations of the Jewish community and that reality led Klein to become active with the Boston-headquartered Keshet in 1996 and become Keshet’s founding executive director in 2001.

Now a national group with a second office in New York and another in
San Francisco, Keshet works to achieve full equality for all LGBTQ Jews in Jewish life by working with other Jewish organizations, helping queer Jewish youth feel valued, and mobilizing the Jewish community for LGBTQ rights nationwide.

Klein believes much progress has been made in the Jewish community since she came out some 25 years ago.

“We have seen LGBTQ Jews move from virtual invisibility and total silencing in Jewish life to a time of real flowering of queer Jewish culture, leadership, art, communities, institutions and impact on the broader Jewish community,” she observes. “Many mainstream Jewish institutions now are places where you also have LGBTQ visibility and leadership.”

Klein recalls that, in the early 1990s, coming out while occupying a leadership role within the Jewish community would have often meant losing your job, since the two were not seen as “compatible identities.”

“Even through the 1990s and my early years of leading Keshet, we regularly heard about people — particularly people who worked with kids — who were fired after they came out, or who stayed closeted because they were afraid they would be fired,” she recounts. “That still happens, but far, far less.”

Another sign of progress, she says, is the official recognition of same-sex relationships: While no rabbi would officiate a same-sex wedding decades ago, some progressive synagogues do so these days. And even those who don’t will have conversations and debates on the subject.

Still, she says, many communities have yet to recognize these advancements, particularly in the Orthodox world. And even among progressive communities that see themselves as liberal, Klein says, “the work that remains is to move from a community where there is basic acceptance and tolerance to a community that celebrates” the LGBTQ community.

For Klein, who is married with a four-year-old son, the need to promote LGBTQ rights stems in part from her feelings of vulnerability as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors.

“I needed to be part of working for a better world,” she explains. “Because we know the impact of that kind of oppression, we are responsible to be part of working against the oppression of anyone. We are a people for whom doing justice work is in our DNA; it is who we are and how we must be in the world.”

Furthermore, Klein believes the Jewish community is uniquely situated to “take on leadership and be a voice” for LGBTQ rights today.

“We are living in a time of relentless attacks by the current American administration on rights that we have already achieved,” she says. “It’s a time of opportunity to be on the right side of history and to connect with the younger generation.”


Hannah Simpson
Transgender activist and Zionist

The first time Hannah Simpson publicly came out as a woman was in 2013, at her synagogue in Boston on Yom Kippur.

She had been asked, for the third year in a row, to speak at the service. After much hesitation and discussions with the synagogue’s leadership, she finally walked up to the bimah and revealed herself as the person she always knew she was.

“The only breach in service protocol that my drash [sermon] caused was applause,” Simpson, now 34, recalls.

“I was almost gently offended that anyone would applaud after a drash, but people came up to me and said such nice things. … It was a relief, for sure.”

As Simpson sees it, “I didn’t change my gender; my gender changed me.” She now lives in New York City and travels around the country and world, writing and speaking about transgender issues to “help people come out to their surroundings and come out to themselves.”

Before she fully came out, Simpson says she was searching for safe spaces to go as her real self. “When you’re not out yet, you can’t just go back to all the places you normally go [but] wearing a dress. I needed to find new places that I could go as Hannah.”

Although the Jewish community in which she grew up was mostly secular, Simpson felt one of those safe spaces might be Judaism.

“I could have gone to gay bars and things like that. But I don’t like loud noisy bars, so I had to find more suitable places to express myself, and one of them was queer Judaism.”

Ironically, the place she latched onto was Idit Klein’s Keshet organization in Boston. “This was a place I could go once every few weeks as Hannah, and honestly practice and get a feel for what carrying myself as a woman in the world was like — because I had 26 years of catching up to do,” she says.

That experience, she believes, strengthened both her Jewish and transgender identities, especially as she drew parallels between the two communities’ histories.

“As a trans person, I took more appreciation in what my ancestors did as Jews to establish themselves in the world, to fight misconceptions, to persevere in a world that wanted to exterminate us simply for being,” she says.

Simpson describes herself as a Zionist and carries a Pride flag featuring a Star of David almost everywhere she goes.

“I find it so hard to look at Jews today, especially in the queer community, who are turning their backs on Israel,” she says. “How can you turn your back 71 years later on the culmination of the promise that was made by our ancestors?

“It scares me today that we’ve allowed ourselves to be co-opted by narratives that tell us to look upon ourselves with guilt,” she adds. “We always need to have compassion, but it doesn’t need to be at the expense of our own preservation.”

Standing outside the new Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, Simpson regards the flags and banners framing the front window. “I am proud of the State of Israel to have been around through these entire 50 years of the Pride movement,” she says. “It’s something that Jews have accomplished within the queer movement.”

As transgender individuals have become more and more visible in mainstream culture in recent years, Simpson recognizes that much progress has been made within the Jewish community to include people like her.

“We’ve come a tremendously long way in giving people an understanding that they will be loved, that their authenticity is valued and that they have something to offer the queer community,” she says.

But Simpson warns that the road to inclusion is a long one in the Orthodox community, where some feel they would be risking their lives, community and family if they came out as transgender.

“At a time when so many people are turning their backs on Judaism entirely, and especially turning their backs on Israel, this is the time to say, ‘Hey, we need to cut the disrespect, we need to cut the transphobia within our own community,’” she says. “We can’t wait for halakha [Jewish law]; the words are not going to rewrite themselves.”

This process, she says, begins with Orthodox leaders “admitting that what they’ve taught in the past has caused harm. You don’t have to change the world, you have to change your mind-set.”


Tyler Gregory
Executive director of pro-Israel LGBTQ organization A Wider Bridge

When San Diego native Tyler Gregory came out in 2009, he was a student at UC Davis and serving as the chapter president of its AEPi Jewish fraternity.

“At the time, I thought I was the only one who could possibly be a gay fraternity president,” the 31-year-old laughs. “Ten years later, it’s almost impossible not to be!”

The experience was an extremely positive one for Gregory, who says he immediately felt accepted as a gay Jewish man by his peers.

He had grown up in the Reform movement, and at 16 visited Israel for the first time as part of a Reform teen summer program. Something clicked, he says.

“I always knew something was missing from my Jewish identity, that this was more than a religion — and I just couldn’t quite place it,” he says. “It was on that trip that I understood that to be in Israel was to be fully Jewish.”

After “falling in love” with the country, Gregory looked for ways to become more involved with it. He attended his first AIPAC Policy Conference while still a teenager and later worked in the pro-Israel lobby’s San Francisco office.

As part of his work, he attempted to engage in outreach to LGBTQ groups. “But something was missing, something was always falling flat,” he recalls. “That was difficult for me, because I wanted to be proudly gay and proudly pro-Israel — and something wasn’t working.”

What Gregory recognized was the gap between the LGBTQ and pro-Israel communities.

“When you look at the agenda of LGBTQ activists in America today, it’s a domestic agenda, it’s a civil rights agenda — anything from police brutality to lack of rights,” he says, moments before speaking at a Pride reception organized by the Israeli Consulate in New York. “We as a pro-Israel community are talking about a foreign policy agenda, which, for people who are fighting inequality, is a luxury issue.”

A Wider Bridge aims to be that connection.

“The way we do that is that we engage on the LGBT issues in Israel with the parallel fight to what activists here are going through, because we know that Israelis’ experiences can add weight to what we are dealing with here, whether it is transgender military service [or] passing the equality act,” he says. “Vice versa, [Israelis] don’t have same-sex marriage and there’s a spike in transgender suicide attempts even in the heart of Tel Aviv,” he adds.

By focusing on LGBTQ issues in the United States and Israel, Gregory believes, “we can start to change the way that activists connect with the State of Israel,” and defy the notion that “a good queer must support X.”

He continues: “We have to claim our own identities and make those decisions for ourselves.”

In general, Gregory says he sees many parallels between the struggle for LGBTQ rights and the Jewish struggle for a homeland. “If you look at Zionism as a concept, that was a liberation movement of the Jewish people just like LGBT activism is a liberation movement,” he says.

“Most Jewish holidays are about: ‘They tried to kill us, they didn’t — let’s eat!’ Well, Pride is all about that too — overcoming our struggles, from Stonewall to the AIDS crisis, and celebrating that we are here and can be who we are.”

In the 10 years since he came out, Gregory says the “picture has improved tremendously” for both communities.

“But these things don’t happen in a vacuum, and for every two steps forward that we take, there is one step back,” he says. “From the time that I came out until two and a half years ago, we had a president [in America] that quarterbacked our issues. Unfortunately, we don’t today.”

Nevertheless, Gregory believes that despite President Donald Trump, there is still much positive momentum to be seized.

LGBTQ Jews “are fearful of this presidency and what it means for our rights, and sometimes we like to back into a corner,” he says. “But we have to remember that the way we won our rights is by getting out of our comfort zones, meeting and interacting with people that don’t see eye-to-eye with us.”

Yelena Goltsman
Founder of RUSA LGBT, the Russian-speaking American LGBT Association

When Yelena Goltsman moved to the United States from the former Soviet Union in 1990, she had two young children and was married to a man.

Initially, she focused on making a life for herself and her family in New York, learning the language, making sure the kids were doing well and developing new skills. “But when you come to the United States and everything is basically there for you to take — that changed my life,” the 56-year-old says. “Freedom changes your life.”

The second major upheaval for Kiev-born Goltsman arrived when, some five years after coming to America, she suddenly found herself falling in love with another woman. She was confused by the situation, but didn’t know any Russian-speakers in New York who she could talk to.

That’s when she heard about the LGBTQ synagogue Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. Although she was not particularly religious, Goltsman decided to meet with its rabbi, Sharon Kleinbaum.

The encounter proved a momentous one.

“I had to overcome the fact that she was a lesbian rabbi — that’s not the image of a rabbi I had coming from the Soviet Union,” admits Goltsman. “We had a wonderful conversation and she made me very comfortable with what she said, which was: ‘Whoever you are, you are accepted here and you are welcome to come here.’”

Goltsman started attending services at CBST and began to appreciate the sense of community that the congregation gave her. However, it took several more years for her to “work up the nerve” to come out to her family. She needn’t have worried. “My kids, amazingly, were very accepting and very understanding,” she recounts.

In 2008, Goltsman founded RUSA LGBT, a network for Russian-speaking LGBTQ individuals, their friends, supporters and loved ones.

“I had never started a group before,” she recalls. “I specifically mentioned that this group should be for everybody, not just for Jewish people. There were not a lot of [Russian-speaking] people here, so I felt like everybody who struggles with their identity, with their sexuality, should have the ability to speak to someone in their own language.”

At first, very few people joined. At a time when social media was in its infancy, Goltsman often found herself spreading the word by distributing flyers in gay bars around town. Awareness slowly began to grow and within a few years, RUSA LGBT “became a sizable group — probably about 150 people, most of whom were Jewish,” Goltsman says.

The initial focus was on helping LGBTQ immigrants settle into New York and to introduce them to the community. Slowly, though, as harsh laws against the LGBTQ community were being drafted in Russia and other Eastern European countries, the organization looked to help potential asylum seekers moving to the United States.

“In 2012, we found out about new laws that were coming out in Russia,” relates Goltsman. “There was a law to defend minors from the influence of sexual minorities. It was a very scary law, and there were some other laws that were debated: One of them was about taking kids away from ‘gay families.’”

From that point on, the group became much more politically active, Goltsman says, including organizing marches to raise awareness about the situation in Russia.

For the past three years, RUSA LGBT has also led the Brighton Beach Pride parade celebrations for the Russian-speaking community in southern Brooklyn. “We’re trying to be visible so people start talking to us,” says Goltsman.

“I see that people listen more, but there are people who will never change — especially people who are older,” she adds. “Some are very rigid in their mind and they still think this is a sickness. It’s really ignorance; a lot of people just don’t know enough.”

Even so, Goltsman is encouraged by the progress made since she came out in the 1990s.

“The more people realize that they actually know gay people, the more we actually talk to people, the more we go into neighborhoods where people live, the more we actually interact with people — the more acceptance happens.”

“There is no other way,” she concludes.