How to make a Jewish activist

How to make a Jewish activist

Steven Goldstein of Teaneck, new head of the Anne Frank Center, talks about his life

Steven Goldstein lays tefillin with Chabad outside the 72nd Street subway in Manhattan.
Steven Goldstein lays tefillin with Chabad outside the 72nd Street subway in Manhattan.

Not that many of us have heard of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect in midtown Manhattan.

The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, yes, of course. The “Diary of Anne Frank”? Who hasn’t? Anne Frank herself? Absolutely everyone’s heard of her.

But the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect was a quiet, even genteel place. If it sent out press releases, they didn’t get far. If they had representatives make public statements, they might have been like trees, falling in the middle of a forest, making no sound.

But now Steven Goldstein of Teaneck is the center’s executive director, and all of a sudden it’s in the news.

Mr. Goldstein is a longtime social activist who has been passionate about being a Jew for as long as he can remember; the Anne Frank Center’s mission, as a progressive voice for social justice, not necessarily focusing on Jewish issues but on the unbearable death of an extraordinary young woman — just one in six million and like every one of those six million Jews murdered during the Shoah (and of course like every one of the other millions of people murdered during the Shoah) entirely unique and completely irreplaceable.

Now, after every bomb threat to a JCC, every cemetery desecration, every attack on Jews, an impassioned email lands in the inbox of just about every Jewish leader, activist, and journalist in the country. They’re all signed by Steven Goldstein.

Mr. Goldstein’s long career as a social activist, honed during the fight for marriage equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community, as well as his deep, tribal, spiritual connection to the Jewish community and to Israel, positioned him well to take the helm, this summer, just as a new outpouring of anti-Semitism and other hate crimes took on new force, seemingly liberated from the sewer in which they’d been contained since the end of World War II.

Mr. Goldstein is also an irrepressible force, full of shtick and wit and outrage and fun, all at the same time, all impossible to overlook. If the Anne Frank Center’s leadership wanted attention as well as a new focus, clearly it went to the right person.

“I’ve been an LGBT American for almost 55 years,” Mr. Goldstein, who will turn 55 in June, said. “I have been a Jew for 5777 years. What people who are close to me know, but maybe other people may not know from reading about me as an LGBT activist, is that my Jewish identity is central to who I am, far more than any other identity in my life.

“I have had a love affair with Judaism from the time I was in my mother’s womb.”

Mr. Goldstein is from Little Neck, N.Y. “I don’t come from a particularly observant family,” he said. “It was a family that was proud to be Jewish, but it was your typical once-a-year-shulgoing family. We’d drive to synagogue ten minutes before the end of Yom Kippur to hear the shofar blown, and then we’d hug and kiss everyone and that ate up those ten minutes.”

But somehow, despite his shul’s “soullessness,” the way it conducted services “without joy, without much spirituality, and without any particular consumer in mind,” when his grandfather would hoist little Steven on his shoulders, “I would stare wondrously at the bimah.

“It was the heyday for my synagogue, and there were about 2,000 people there,” he said. “I would watch the rabbi blow the shofar, and I felt 5,000 years of spirituality travel from the shofar to my heart. That feeling has never really left me.

“I knew this was for me,” he said.

He wanted to be a rabbi, Mr. Goldstein said. “That was the first thing that I knew, when my parents asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I remember sitting in the backseat of my parents’ Chevrolet, when they asked me. I was 7. It was not the era, and I did not come from a family, where saying ‘I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up’ at age 7 was okay. So I blurted out what I had in my heart. I wanted to be a rabbi.

Steven Goldstein, left, with Steve Carell, who played him in “Freeheld.”
Steven Goldstein, left, with Steve Carell, who played him in “Freeheld.”

“But my parents” — his mother was a keypunch operator, and his father, “who was very entrepreneurial,” created and owned one of the city’s first and biggest court reporting firms — “said it’s not a job for a nice Jewish boy. They don’t make enough money.”

That’s not what kept him from rabbinical school. It was his gayness — when he had graduated from Brandeis and was ready to think about his next move, rabbinical schools had not opened themselves to openly gay applicants — that kept him out. “And if I had been able to do that, the whole glorious career that I had would never have happened,” he said.

Instead, Mr. Goldstein went on to earn “more degrees than a thermometer,” he said. He has a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, another master’s, this one in journalism, from Columbia, and a law degree, also from Columbia. He worked for New Jersey’s Senator Frank Lautenberg — the two were very close, Mr. Goldstein said — and then for New York’s Senator Charles Schumer, who now is Senate minority leader.

During his career as a Senate staffer, Mr. Goldstein worked on gun control and pro-choice legislation, “although the last time I heard, I wasn’t going to get pregnant any time soon,” he said. For that same reason — it was a major civil rights issue — he devoted himself to marriage equality; the fact that this was something that could apply to him was not his major impetus, he said. “If I had been a straight progressive, I would have been fighting for marriage equality just as I had fought for a woman’s right to choose and now I fight against the Muslim ban. I don’t believe that there is a correlation between being a member of a community affected by oppression and your ability to fight it with all your heart.”

That said, “Did I have an extra feeling for it? I have a Jewish answer. Cain v’lo. Yes and no. It did affect me personally — but if I had not been a gay man with a same-sex partner, would I have joined the fight? Certainly I would have.”

Mr. Goldstein’s way of joining the fight was to start an organization to fight with. Garden State Equality was — and still is, even without Mr. Goldstein at its helm — a formidable group. And Mr. Goldstein’s work in it led — among the legislative successes that in the end are more important, of course — to his being played by the actor Steve Carell in “Freeheld,” a 2015 feature film, based on a true story about a lesbian couple’s legal fight for medical benefits.

Mr. Goldstein found it interesting to be played by Mr. Carell. “He is an Italian American,” Mr. Goldstein said. “He was shouting out my words in ‘Freeheld’ as if I were Don Corleone in ‘The Godfather.’ I tried to explain that when you say ‘Oy!’ you do not yell it, with your fist pointing out. You say it, ‘Oy,’ clenching your chest, holding your heart, as if you were going to die.

“It was very hard to explain to someone that point of Jewish communication. I wasn’t a screaming lunatic, saying I am going to kill you. I was a nice Jewish boy, saying that you were killing me. I was not Don Corleone. I was Jerry Seinfeld.

“That’s how my activism works. You should feel guilty about how what you’re doing is killing me.”

Part of the reason he feels so strongly about social justice, and about Judaism, he said, might be because his only sibling, his brother, Richie, is profoundly autistic. “He is the great love of my life,” he said.

Mr. Goldstein moved to Teaneck in 2004. “Like everyone else, at some point you don’t want to live in an apartment in Manhattan,” he said. “I need a Jewish community, and I was attracted to Teaneck because of the community.

“People had told me that the Orthodox don’t like gays, but I have been welcomed in Teaneck.” He went to see Rabbi Ephraim Simon, who heads the Chabad House in town, “for advice on how to toivel my dishes,” to make sure that they were ritually clean and kosher. He told Rabbi Simon that he’s gay, and “he said, ‘What’s the big deal? Do you have a Jewish home?’ I said yes, and he said, ‘That’s all that counts.’”

At the time, Mr. Goldstein had a partner with whom he lived — they since have broken up — and “I still get mail from Chabad addressed to Mr. and Mr. Steven Goldstein,” he said. “That shows you how embracing Teaneck is.

“I think that I am a living example of the need not to have preconceptions.”

Another preconception against which Mr. Goldstein fights is the idea that a Jewish LGBT activist cannot be a centrist on Israel. He loves Israel deeply, he said, and he is “more AIPAC than J Street. The very left of AIPAC, or maybe the very right of J Street. I happen to believe in a two-state solution, but where I differ from J Street is how we’d get there.” J Street doesn’t take Israel’s security needs as seriously as it should, he said.

“Many years ago, when I took Ulpan at the Hebrew University, I lived on French Hill, in Jerusalem, next to a Palestinian settlement,” he said. “You’d see the broken faces of the Palestinians, and you had to cry for them. I want Palestinians to be seen as people.”

Steven Goldstein stands between his former employer, Senator Frank Lautenberg, and his good friend, state Senator Loretta Weinberg.
Steven Goldstein stands between his former employer, Senator Frank Lautenberg, and his good friend, state Senator Loretta Weinberg.

While he was at Garden State Equality — in fact, while he was working on the case that is the basis for “Freeheld” — Mr. Goldstein also commuted to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical School in Philadelphia, following his dream of ordination. “It was very stressful,” he said. “I don’t smoke, and I don’t drink. When I am stressed, I hit the bottle — but my bottle is Diet Coke. And I eat Entenmann’s chocolate-covered donuts. That’s my rock bottom.”

He gave up on rabbinical school because the stress and the commute were too much, but Mr. Goldstein has not given up on the idea of ordination. He hopes perhaps to enter the Academy for Jewish Religion, which allows students to take as much time as they need, he said.

Mr. Goldstein left Garden State Equality once the fight for marriage equality was won. He taught at Rutgers, where he had a joint appointment at the law school and in the political science department, and was “as happy as a kosher clam,” he said. It was a much lower-key life than he’d been used to living, and he loved it But then, “I got a call from the Anne Frank Center. I’d never heard of it — and I was a native New Yorker, very involved in Jewish causes. And part of me said, ‘Why do you want this challenge?’ But I took it because of my Jewish identity.

“This finally was the opportunity to lead an organization that works in the Jewish community and also works on other issues. If I hadn’t taken it and someone else had, I’d have hated it.”

The Anne Frank Center had concentrated on education; it still does, but now with a dose of Mr. Goldstein’s social activism shaking it up.

He gets a huge amount of hatred directed at him, he said; poisonous emails that shake him and disturb him. “When I get hate stuff, I weep,” he said. “I have worked for public figures, who seem as tough as nails on the outside. You think they’d never get hurt. And in private they’re devastated.”

That’s true of him too, he said. “I’ve never gotten many anti-LGBT emails in my life. No matter what the cause was — marriage equality, gun control, a woman’s right to choose — whatever it was, whenever I got hate mail, it was always against Steven Goldstein the Jew. Not Steven Goldstein the gay man. Steven Goldstein the Jew.

“Being a Jew is central to my identity. I don’t go to bed at night — even if I’m not going to be alone — and I don’t wake up in the morning saying that I’m a member of the LGBT community. I do go to bed at night and wake up in the morning as a Jew.”

In 2015, when his relationship with his husband ended “suddenly and traumatically and left me in trauma, I didn’t leave my bed until I read the daily portions of the Tanach and Talmud,” Mr. Goldstein said. “As a progressive Jew, I would read the Torah and Talmud and often say that’s ridiculous; I would read very critically, and I would say, ‘Hillel and Shammai, I don’t agree with either of you.’

“I read it and I question it, but to me that’s a very Jewish way to read. I didn’t read great LGBT works or great secular works. No. It was my Judaism that got me through. So when someone attacks me based on my Jewish faith or my love for Israel, that rocks me to the core.”

As for his work now, “We are proudly Jewish, and this is not paradoxical, but we fight every injustice as strongly as we fight anti-Semitism. We do not prioritize. We fight it when we see Islamophobia, immigrant bashing, or fascism. There is no time lag. We respond to it all with equal gusto.

“That is not at all paradoxical. It’s what we’re taught about tikkun olam” — about helping to fix the world. “And it’s what Martin Luther King Jr. taught. ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”

It is Steven Goldstein’s mission and passion to fight injustice everywhere.

Loretta Weinberg of Teaneck, the New Jersey state Senate majority leader, has been friends with Mr. Goldstein for about 14 years now. They met through their joint work on marriage equality; the relationship now is so close that Ms. Weinberg calls Mr. Goldstein “a member of my family.” He’s like another son, she said; “I always refer to him as my easiest birth.” Her grandchildren call him “uncle,” she added; at her granddaughter’s bat mitzvah this year, in California, where she lives, she called Mr. Goldstein up to light a candle, along with other “people who have helped change the world.”

Mr. Goldstein is “a bigger-than-life character,” Ms. Weinberg said. Not only is his personality huge — a word to which she said he could lay claim, despite its current use in other political contexts. When he’d throw fundraising programs, they’d be so extensive that, she said, she jokes that “we’d get marriage equality done quicker than this evening.”

She remembers the time that Mr. Goldstein asked her speak to celebrate the passage of a bill allowing domestic partnerships in New Jersey. “It was such a tiny step in the evolution of marriage equality,” she said. “It only affected state employees; anyone in local government had to opt it, and it didn’t affect private business at all.” Still it was a symbolic victory.

“Steven arranged a big rally in front of Maplewood’s town hall, and asked me I could come to speak,” she said. She’d expected about 100 people, “but there must have been at least 1,000, and the bill probably didn’t even affect 75 percent of the audience. I remember thinking I’d never done so little to make so many people happy.” It was force of Mr. Goldstein’s personality, she said, that drew those crowds, affected the legislation, and made everyone feel that there was hope.

As for his Jewishness, “Steven wears his yarmulke with pride,” she said. Switching metaphors, “he wears his Jewishness on his sleeve,” she added. “He is so very pro-Israel. Being Jewish is part and parcel of who he is.

“I met Steven through an odyssey — that’s what I call the march toward marriage equality,” Ms. Weinberg concluded. “And now he’s off on another odyssey.”

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