Rabbi-in-training Steven Goldstein of Teaneck puts a premium on helping every human being live as he or she is meant to, and to do that fully.
For Goldstein, a New Jersey gay rights activist, this has meant redirecting his own life toward the rabbinate, a profession he’s dreamed of since he was 7. By that age, though, he already knew he was gay and that the rabbinate was out of bounds.
Steven Goldstein displays the certificate of simchat min hadash he created for Leslie Farber. (See related article.)
He’s now 43 and the rabbinical schools of both the Reform and Reconstructonist movements accept openly gay and lesbian students. This is Goldstein’s first year at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa.; he also chairs Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s statewide organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex rights. (A transgendered person is living or is the process of becoming the gender that is different from his or her genetic sex; someone who is intersex was born with an anatomy that is not considered definitively male or female.)
"I’ve had a rich and blessed life," said Goldstein, who grew up in Queens and attended a Conservative congregation, but "this is the most satisfying, happy time of my life. I do find God in studying Hebrew." Being able to translate a passage of biblical Hebrew "is the coolest thing on the planet."
He also wants to help other Jews lead Jewishly fulfilling lives. Sometimes that happens in novel ways. On Jan. ‘9, Goldstein hosted and presided over a naming ceremony in his home to formally celebrate and welcome a transgendered person into the Jewish community as a woman. That woman, Leslie Farber, now a resident of Montclair and, like Goldstein, a member of Reconstructionist B’nai Keshet there, grew up in Tenafly as Larry.
Speaking of the ceremony, a simchat min hadash (celebration of a new gender), Goldstein said, "Such a ceremony is not done often, but we’re not the first." Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and intersex Jews "are entitled to the same simchas" as any other Jews.
Farber made a decision "to live as God intended her to be," he said. Transgendered people face discrimination "a thousand times worse" than that faced by gays and lesbians so, for a transgendered person to make the choice "to be what you really are," shows that "there are no limits to courage, [it’s] living by extraordinary example."
At the simcha (see opposite page), Farber changed her name from Eliezer Zachariah to Aliza Zahava. In modern Hebrew, said Goldstein, "aliza" means both "gay" as in "happy" and "gay" as in "homosexual.
"Rituals mean a lot," he said, while pointing out that ceremonies are often as much for the loved ones as for the person or people directly involved, sometimes becoming the "final step in turning loved ones from accepting to embracing."
Interviewed several days before the event, he joked that "Being a Jewish home, we’ll have more food than we know what to do with."
That Jewish home is shared with Daniel Gross, a vice president at Goldman Sachs. He and Goldstein made history in September ’00’ when, after a Jewish ceremony in Montreal and civil union in Vermont, they became the first same sex couple to appear in the wedding announcements of The New York Times.
Shaking things up and confounding expectations appear to be all in a day’s work for Goldstein. For one thing, he says he’s "hardline conservative on Israel" and called the withdrawal from Gaza "a massive blunder."
"I’m your rather traditional progressive Democrat," he said, whose long career in politics and television includes being the only openly gay or lesbian person ever to have managed a statewide political campaign in New Jersey; he was co-campaign manager for now-Gov. Jon Corzine’s ‘000 U.S. Senate race. But the Democratic Party is "not as strong on Israel as it could be."
George W. Bush is the "worst president in the history of the republic," said Goldstein, but had good reasons to go into Iraq even though he has no good reasons to stay there. Any war that brings democracy to a neighbor of Israel is "a war that can’t be dismissed out of hand."
"Ariel Sharon is a hero of mine," he said. "He was a hero of mine before he turned left."
Such positions, coming from him, stun both his liberal classmates and colleagues and also the conservatives he often faces in his human rights work, Goldstein said, but "one can be a progressive rabbi and be a hardline staunch defender of Israel’s safety and security."
Goldstein, who hopes to become a congregational rabbi, said he’s asked all the time whether he will speak from the pulpit about gay rights. His stock answer is that he doesn’t expect he will any more or less than any other Reconstructionist rabbi. "[But] will I speak about Israel from the pulpit? All the time."