Many political observers are bemoaning the lack of civil discourse between opposing factions these days, but there are some surprising examples of polite disagreement. Case in point: Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, a liberal lesbian, says civility marks her relationship with anti-LGBTQ+ religious right activist Tony Perkins, with whom she serves on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. "You can be sitting around a table with people with whom you have deep disagreements, even Tony Perkins...and still be civil," Kleinbaum says.
President Joe Biden named Kleinbaum to the commission this year for a term that extends to May 2023. She sat on the commission for part of 2020, having been nominated by Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, but stepped down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit her hometown of New York City particularly hard -- and her congregants there needed her.
The pandemic brought back memories of another health crisis. Kleinbaum has served Congregation Beit Simchat Torah since 1992 when she became the LGBTQ-focused synagogue's first full-time rabbi. It was the height of the AIDS epidemic, and she saw 40 percent of her congregation die of the disease. "I was burying my generation," she recalls.
She persevered in helping the sick, the dying, and their loved ones, and today she says, "It's been an honor for these 30 years to be able to create community."
She also calls it an honor to be named to the religious freedom commission by Biden, and in October she began a six-month sabbatical from her rabbinical duties to devote time to the commission's work and some writing projects. The commission is tasked with monitoring the right to religion and belief abroad, and it produces an annual report with recommendations for the State Department. Kleinbaum is interested in a variety of issues, such as the persecution of the Uighurs, a largely Muslim ethnic group, in China, and of Christians in Syria. "It's a huge range," she says.
She's sensitive to the relationship between religious freedom and LGBTQ+ rights; religious groups have the right to hold anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs but shouldn't have the right to put them into law, she notes.
Becoming a rabbi realized a long-held dream for Kleinbaum, who had ambitions in that direction in her youth, at a time when women and LGBTQ+ people couldn't be rabbis even in the more liberal branches of Judaism. Throughout her career, she has sought to make religion mean freedom, not repression. "I wanted to be part of a future that would see Jewish values as a source of liberation," she says.
This story is part of The Advocate's 2021 People of the Year issue, which is out on newsstands Nov. 23, 2021. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe -- or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.