Forward Thinking

Board Member Quits LGBT Synagogue Over Gaza

By Michael Kaminer

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Congregation Beth Simchat Torah’s Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum / WN

Claiming “Hamas propaganda” has infected the pulpit, a director of the nation’s largest LGBT synagogue resigned in an angry e-mail this week, igniting a firestorm on social media.

But the rabbi of New York’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah is calling the resignation letter “a twisted perversion of the facts.”

In his e-mail, Bryan Bridges claimed that CBST and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum had been more sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians than to the risks facing Jews in Israel.

“Recent events have demonstrated that CBST is far more committed to a progressive political agenda than to the Jewish people,” Bridges wrote. “This raises a question for members: Why belong to this synagogue instead of a different religious group such as the Unitarian church or an activist organization such as Queers Against Israeli Apartheid?”

Bridges claimed his ire grew after he “heard that Rabbi [Sharon] Kleinbaum had read the names of Gazan casualties on the same day that Hamas violated the sixth humanitarian ceasefire by kidnapping a soldier,” and that Kleinbaum had “invited a group advocating BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) against Israel to host an event at the synagogue.”

The e-mail was circulated widely by Michael Lucas, the gay adult-film impresario who’s become a vocal and visible pro-Israel activist.

“It is sad to see someone pushed away from a place where he was supposed to feel safe and spiritually nourished,” Lucas wrote in a message accompanying Bridges’ note. “Regrettably, under Rabbi Kleinbaum, what should be a center of Jewish unity has instead become a forum for continual and divisive condemnation of Israel.” Lucas told the Forward by e-mail that “I am not a member of CBST and never will be.”

But Kleinbaum called Bridges’ accusations “ludicrous.”

The letter “is not grounded in fact,” she told the Forward. “I was extremely disappointed, and I expected more from Bryan. Furthermore, I reject this kind of McCarthyism in the Jewish community, of deciding who’s a good Jew and a bad Jew.”

CBST “did host a panel on the conflict in Gaza, but it had nothing to do with BDS. His accusation is a twisted perversion of the facts.” The congregation itself, Kleinbaum said, “is an intellectually engaged, spiritually grounded environment where vigorous debate is welcomed. We’ve had programming over the last year that represents the left wing, the right wing, and even the Israeli government. I even invited Michael Lucas to present. I disagree with him, but I’m not afraid to get into discussions with people I disagree with.”

The response online has been vitriolic. Kleinbaum noted that she had been labeled “Kapo, Arab-lover, Jew-hater. That’s the level of debate on Facebook. Off Facebook, people are expressing a lot of support. They’re happy CBST is a place of debate,” she said.

Bridges’ resignation e-mail concluded on a rueful note.

“I want a synagogue, especially my synagogue, to call on congregants to provide aid to and prayers for injured soldiers and their families, people in southern Israel whose lives are disrupted by the constant sirens, etc.,” he wrote. “In the end, I would actually prefer the synagogue take a position of silence on the conflict rather than to support the enemy from the bimah.”

But silence is not an option for Kleinbaum.

“Moving into the Days of Awe, we will create a community where we learn from this,” she said. “And maybe we can all pray, together, for peace in Middle East.”


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