From the Rabbi’s study… Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum’s Visit, and Adult Brit Mitzvah Celebrations

Rabbi Lisa Edwards

I mentioned this past Friday night how quickly time is passing. These months leading up to my change of status from Senior Rabbi to Rabbi Emerita are zooming by. My thanks to those of you who have wanted to and are managing to join us for particular events. Still a lot to come! (see next post in this newsletter)

I felt so blessed on Feb. 22 to be in the company of so many of you, as well as so many colleagues, and to be on the bimah with two of my favorite clergy people — Cantor Juval Porat and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, Senior Rabbi of our sibling congregation CBST in New York. I met Rabbi Kleinbaum in 1988 in Jerusalem, when I was a first-year rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College and she was a bit farther along at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. I was just starting to figure out how I could be both a rabbi and an out lesbian, and I was blessed to have her as one of my teachers that year. I spent almost every Shabbat afternoon at her home studying Torah with a group of students who were on the same journey. Later, during my last two years of school at HUC in New York, Tracy and I were blessed to become congregants at CBST just as Rabbi Kleinbaum was beginning her tenure there.

So it was an easy choice to ask her to install me as rabbi at BCC 25 years ago. Any of you who remember that event know that her humor and wisdom have not diminished in the least. What an honor it was to have her with us now, along with her wife Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO. Some of BCC’s teachers were starry-eyed to have such a celebrity as Randi Weingarten in our midst. If you have an opportunity, tune in to our Ustream page and fast forward to Rabbi Kleinbaum’s talk. Or see below for Larry Nathenson’s summary of the evening and of Rabbi Kleinbaum’s amazing drash.

One of the ongoing projects and delights that I’m part of this year is the adult Brit Mitzvah course that Cantor Juval and I have been co-leading. What a blessing to be learning with an enthusiastic group of adults as they make their way through texts and learning trope (to chant Torah).

Besides the blessing of learning with eager students, we also initiated a change in terminology from Bar/Bat mitzvah (or B’nei Mitzvah in the plural) to Brit Mitzvah. Here’s Cantor Juval’s explanation:

“I heard the term in the ACC (American Conference of Cantors) forum where there was a debate on what name to use for gender non-binary folks who would like to participate in the coming of age ritual traditionally referred to as ‘Bar Mitzvah’ or ‘Bat Mitzvah’ (son/daughter of law).

“By adding ‘Brit Mitzvah’ we provide the opportunity for gender non-binary people to claim ownership of the ritual, by embracing a covenant with Jewish law – as ultimately this could be what the coming of age ritual is about: becoming accountable for one’s actions and aspiring to act in ways that are in alignment with one’s understanding of Jewish ethics and values.”

Adopting this new title for this coming of age ritual will hopefully help increase a sense of inclusion. It’s been a very easy and important change to make.

We have so many participating in the class that we’ve set aside four different services this spring to accommodate them all! The schedule is below, including adding two Shabbat morning services so that our group can leisurely make their way through their Torah verses, as well as offer short d’vrei Torah (words of Torah) — their own teachings — to the congregation.

You’re all invited to any and all of these celebrations:

On Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Passover begins, we’ll celebrate on Friday night April 12 at 8:00 pm with James Sutherland, followed the next day Saturday April 13 at 10:00 am by Tracy Moore, Marie Pedersen, Michael Hyder, Angela Brown, and Jeff Cohen.

Then on Memorial Day weekend, on Friday evening May 24 at 8:00 pm, we’ll cheer on Mark Homyk and Tera Klein, and pick up again at 10:00 am on Saturday May 25 to celebrate with Ira Dankberg, Melissa Minkin, Ronnie Wexler, Todd Moellenberg, and Joy Zimnavoda.

These folks are studying and practicing day and night, sharing study techniques and supporting one another as they master new skills. Don’t be surprised if you see some of them again and again reading Torah and/or leading services at BCC. Come share in their accomplishments!


A Mazel Tov for Rabbi Lisa Edwards:

Every year in March, to celebrate Women’s History Month, each California State Assemblymember and State Senator invites one woman to be Woman of the Year from their district. This year BCC’s Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager-Dove (District 54) has invited BCC’s own Rabbi Lisa Edwards to receive this honor. Mazel tov to Rabbi Lisa, who traveled to Sacramento on March 4 with Tracy Moore, BCC Board member Elizabeth Savage, and others to receive this honor alongside with other remarkable women from all over California!

“Joy is an Act of Spiritual and Political Resistance”: Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum

Larry Nathenson, Editor

At our Ruach Chayim Shabbat service on February 22, we were blessed to hear the inspiring words of Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of CBST (Congregation Beth Simchat Torah), our sibling LGBT congregation in New York. As Rabbi Lisa relates in her column above, Rabbi Kleinbaum installed her as rabbi of BCC 25 years ago. By joining us now to honor Rabbi Lisa’s quarter century of service to BCC, Rabbi Kleinbaum helps us prepare to embark on the transition to the next chapter in our congregational life with Lisa as Rabbi Emerita.

Rabbi Kleinbaum spoke to a packed house of some 140 congregants and guests, celebrating the solidarity between the world’s two oldest LGBT congregations founded in 1972 and 1973 (she joked that CBST is a little jealous that BCC can claim to be the oldest). Recalling her Shabbat afternoons with Lisa in Jerusalem in 1988-89, she described the “radical act” of not leaving our true selves at the door when studying Torah together. They struggled with how to remain deeply committed to a people and a tradition that on the surface hate us. But the only way the world changes is when we sit down with those who profess hatred or disdain for us and refuse to let them get away with not treating us as full human beings. Their little group of mostly lesbian rabbinic students gave each other the strength to go out into the world and engage with those who denied their full humanity.

The key to doing this, Rabbi Kleinbaum explained, is to recognize that “joy is an act of spiritual and political resistance” (a phrase she repeated several times during her talk). Drawing on the lessons of the upcoming holiday of Purim, she offered the message that in dangerous, exhausting, or depressing times, we should be joyful — whether we feel like it or not. Only then will we have the strength to see, as Mordecai tells Esther, that we were created for just such a time and purpose, that we have something to offer the world that no one else can. For Esther, this meant having the courage to reveal herself as a Jew to the king and save her people from destruction at the hands of Haman. For the Jewish communities who lived through centuries of persecution in Europe, it meant creating a rich and dynamic culture with a profound sense of humor, to resist being defined by external oppression.

In our own communities, during the AIDS epidemic, CBST resisted by affirming oneg Shabbat (the joy of Shabbat) and refusing to turn Shabbat into a memorial service, no matter how many of its congregants were dying. And after the 2016 election, Rabbi Kleinbaum realized that as bad as the outcome seemed for us, it must feel much worse for Muslim Americans. Every Friday afternoon since the election, a small group of CBST clergy and congregants have gone to a mosque in New York, holding signs that say “LGBT Jewish New Yorkers stand with our Muslim neighbors.” The Muslim congregants were so moved that they reciprocated with similar signs after the tragedy in Pittsburgh, volunteered at CBST as ushers for High Holidays, and their imam even spoke at CBST’s Pride celebration.

These may seem like small actions, but if we do them we will resist depression and despair and perhaps inspire others to do good as well. “No one can do everything,” said Rabbi Kleinbaum, “but everyone can do something.”

During the February 22 service, Cantor Juval was accompanied by guest musicians JJ Ross on percussion and Yoni Arbel on guitar, flute, and saxophone. Following Rabbi Kleinbaum’s drash, he offered a more “Lisa-centric” version of his song “House of New Life,” which he wrote several years ago for BCC. Emphasizing that Rabbi Lisa’s retirement is also a new beginning for her at BCC, here is the refrain:

Our memories forever
Live on within,
While something is ending,
Something begins.
Thanks to your vision
We’ve built a home,
Where we can be who we are
And know we’re not alone.
With all our hearts,
Our souls and minds,
Together we’ve built
A House of New Life.

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