Growing up in Tucson, Alanna “Lonnie” Kleinman did not know any female rabbis or any religious leaders who identified as LGTBQ. Now Kleinman is joining a much more diverse rabbinate, one that more fully reflects the fullness of Jewish communities.
On May 22, almost 50 years after Rabbi Sally Priesand became the first woman ordained a rabbi in America, Kleinman graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College outside Philadelphia. For the first chapter of her rabbinic career, she’s accepted a chaplaincy position at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, serving people who are often at their most vulnerable.
“As a rabbi, I am really drawn to doing relationship work and connecting to people through pastoral care,” said Kleinman. “With chaplaincy, it is such an honor to be in people’s lives at transitional moments, moments of joy and grief.”
Kleinman’s journey to rabbinic leadership began in Tucson, where much of her life revolved around Jewish involvement. Her family belonged to Congregation Anshei Israel. She attended Tucson Hebrew Academy before going to public high school. She remained active, studying at Anshei Israel’s Hebrew High School and led her local USY Chapter.
“From a young age community was important to me. I wanted to be around the people that I loved,” she explained. “Growing up, ritual was also a big part of my life. I have visceral memories of braiding challah every Friday. During those years, I learned to do things that gave meaning to Jewish time.”
During high school and college years, Kleinman struggled with her sexual orientation, eventually coming out in her early 20s. During her undergraduate years Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., Kleinman also wrestled with her relationship to Judaism. Then came a life-changing turn: she took a religion course with Robert Kugler, a scholar of early Christianity. He suggested she check out the writings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founding thinker of Reconstructionist Judaism. Profoundly influenced by modern sociology, Kaplan (1883-1981) taught that Jews have the duty to reconstruct Jewish communities to meet the needs of current and future generations. Kaplan also wrote that Jews should no longer uphold the idea that they are the chosen people.
Kleinman was deeply moved by Kaplan’s writings, profoundly identifying with his approach to Jewish life. To boot, Kugler suggested to Kleinman that she would make a great rabbi, though she wasn’t quite ready to consider the idea seriously.
“There was no lightbulb moment where I said, ‘I want to be a rabbi,’ yet my professor planted the seed,” she said.
After college, Kleinman spent a year at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and later served as the Texas-based regional director for Moishe House, which describes itself as a “global leader in peer-led Jewish young adult engagement.”
“I felt called to support people in their Jewish journeys. I knew I wanted to do pastoral work, so I felt like I was ready to dive into rabbinical studies,” said Kleinman.
As an admirer of Kaplan, it felt natural for her to attend the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC), founded in 1968 by Kaplan’s son-in-law, Rabbi Ira Eisenstein. She was also drawn to RRC by its pioneering history of inclusion: from its outset, it was open to ordaining women. In the mid 1980s, RRC became the first seminary to admit gay and lesbian rabbinical students. In 2014, Rabbi Deborah Waxman, who identifies as lesbian, became president. Several faculty members identify as LGTBQ.
While at RRC, she worked as an admissions and student life intern, as well as social justice advocacy organizations and in hospital and senior chaplaincy. She also became involved with SVARA, the Chicago-based traditional, radical yeshiva dedicated to the serious study of Talmud through the lens of Queer experiences. She is currently a teaching fellow there.
“It is about bringing queerness and the experience of what it means to be queer to the text and allowing the text to speak back to us,” explained Kleinman.
Kleinman sees her rabbinic career as full of possibilities. Of this, she is certain: the work is urgent, and bringing a queer perspective to Jewish texts will always be part of her rabbinate.
“There is so much work that needs to be done, it can feel overwhelming,” she said. “It is important for me to find a way to remember that I am just a person at the end of the day.”