Hillary Rodham Clinton, at what felt like a particularly unpredictable gig on her schedule, gave the keynote address at a fundraising event for Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), New York City’s LGBTQ synagogue, on Monday night.
She spoke before a crowd of 700 that had gathered at a theater of the Fashion Institute of Technology for “Bringing Vision to Life,” both to raise money for the mortgage on its new Manhattan temple and to honor Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, a notable human rights activist, for her 25 years of service.
“As she led this congregation forward, Rabbi Kleinbaum helped CBST become what it is today: a bold spiritual community of resistance and love,” said Clinton, taking the podium following a performance by the Greenwich Village Orchestra of Lincoln Portrait, by Aaron Copland, who, it was noted, was gay and Jewish, and accused of Communist affiliations during the McCarthy era. “Love is always, always needed,” she added. “It turns out resistance comes in and out of our needs, but it is high on the need list right now.”
The event, which raised $2.3 million for the synagogue, was co-hosted by Andy Cohen and Cynthia Nixon, the latter of whom noted, “I was not raised Jewish. I am not Jewish at all, in fact. But CBST is still a home for me. I come here on my own terms.” She added, in one of the most political nods of the evening, “This congregation gathers not because we have to, or because we fear the wrath of hell — though this last year has been plenty of a preview, thank you very much.”
Cohen said he first came to CBST in the early ’90s, and noted, to appreciative laughter, “Growing up Jewish and closeted in Missouri is exactly as much fun as it sounds.”
Kleinbaum and many of her congregants were ardent supporters of Clinton during her campaign; the rabbi’s partner, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten, faced criticism for her official AFT Clinton endorsement. Kleinbaum and Clinton shared a stage recently at the funeral (where Kleinbaum officiated and Clinton spoke) of CBST congregant Edie Windsor, the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that granted same-sex married couples the right to federally recognized marriage. (Windsor, it was announced from the stage on Monday night, bequeathed $50,000 to CBST from her estate.)
And following the 2016 election, Kleinbaum and many CBST members wrote to Clinton, expressing their support.
“I especially loved the letters I got from some of your youngest congregants,” she told the sold-out crowd on Monday. “For example, 8-year-old Felix, and his moms, sent along a photo of his incredible Halloween costume. He looked just like me. He even nailed my hair, which you know is not easy.” The audience roared with delight.
Clinton acknowledged that many in the theater had “worked their hearts out” for her campaign, and that they must be “really kvelling” over Kleinbaum’s years of spiritual leadership and activism — causing laughter that only increased when Clinton added about her use of Yiddish, “Not bad for a Methodist from Illinois.”
The former secretary of state, who spoke for 13 minutes, lingered on the topic of the AIDS crisis and its early days, when Kleinbaum first took the helm at CBST, a then-tiny congregation that watched many of its members die young.
“I personally will never forget the feelings of pain and loss that I experienced on the National Mall the day that Bill and I went to see the AIDS quilt for the first time,” Clinton recalled. “I will also never forget the determination of AIDS activists who I met with, from L.A. to New York, who were literally fighting for their lives and reminding us that silence equals death. And we all have to be resolved that we cannot and will not go back to those days ever again.” She said it is “appropriate to remember a time not only of profound grief and suffering, but also of resilience and determination in the face of denial and indifference,” particularly now, when our “system to care for people is at risk, as funding is cut and as priorities change.”
Clinton noted, “There has never been a more urgent call to embrace the concept of tikkun olam,” a tenet of Judaism which means, in translation, “repair of the world.” Or, as she said she learned growing up in her church, “‘Do all the good you can for all the people you can in all the ways you can as long as ever you can.’ These are words from our respective traditions that should guide and inspire us. They certainly have helped pick me up and keep myself going when I’ve been knocked down, which has happened from time to time.”
In the days after the election, Clinton shared, she walked in the woods with her dogs, “watched a lot of HGTV,” organized her closets, did yoga, drank Chardonnay, and read lots of mysteries “because in the end, the bad guy always gets it.” She added, “I also prayed. I prayed a lot, as fervently as I can remember.”
Summing up the year, she said, “2017 has been a case study on how important it is to try to recapture a sense of common humanity and citizenship, and try to walk in the shoes of people who don’t see the world like we do.” She declared that “empathy should not only be at the center of our individual lives and our spiritual lives, but it should be at the center of our public life,” which it has been for Kleinbaum and the members of CBST, she said, noting, “I have admired it and been impressed by it.”
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