On Sunday, hundreds of members of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) in New York City will march from their home of nearly 40 years in the ramshackle, dingy Westbeth Artists Community to a gleaming new space on West 30th Street (where they’ll be just two blocks from Tablet; hi, neighbors!) A klezmer band will accompany the group as they walk with their five Torahs under a rainbow chuppah made by congregants several years ago in celebration of marriage equality. Elderly members and people with disabilities will be able to ride along with the parade in a borrowed NYU trolley. “It’s purple,” said Sharon Kleinbaum, CBST’s longtime rabbi, during a recent tour of the new facilities, “so that’s great.”
The merry group will first head to The Church of the Holy Apostles on 28th Street, where for the past 15 years CBST has often held Shabbat services. The church’s choir will serenade them from the Holy Apostles’s steps, singing a hymn of blessing. Then church members will join New York City’s mayor, New York’s governor, and religious leaders of all denominations for a rainbow-ribbon cutting, along with songs from the CBST Chorus, a fanfare by composer/congregant Jonathan Sheffer, and a mega shofar-blowing with shofar sounders from some 30 congregations around the country. “The space isn’t really sanctified until the Torahs move,” Kleinbaum said. “I’ve heard that the definition of ‘place’ is ‘space plus meaning.’ This place, which has been nine years in the making, is a container for the vast and broad community we have at CBST.”
Earlier this week, Kleinbaum and architect Stephen Cassell from Architecture Research Office (ARO), which designed CBST’s new home, gave journalists from a bunch of different worlds—the Jewish press, the LGBT community, architecture and design publications—a tour of the new space. Workers were still busy, stenciling gold stripes on a window, putting up lettering on the front entrance, wiring, hanging a giant screen in the lobby. The ner tamid, the eternal light that hangs above the bima, still had wires dangling from it. “It will all be ready for Sunday,” Cassell promised.
The shul began back in 1973, with an itty-bitty ad in The Village Voice—it was placed by an Indian Jew who wasn’t sure exactly how to lead a Shabbat service—inviting gay Jews to prayer. Soon, a dozen or so Jewish men were meeting regularly at the Church of the Holy Apostles, lugging a shopping bag containing candlesticks, a kiddush cup, and a challah every time. (A glossy hardcover, Changing Lives, Making History, by the shul’s former associate Rabbi, Ayelet S. Cohen, tells the congregation’s story in more detail.) In 1978 the congregation moved to the Westbeth, and in 1992, Kleinbaum became CBST’s first full-time rabbi.
Having outgrown Westbeth, CBST, the country’s largest LGBT-founded synagogue, began seriously looking for a new home around nine years ago. Cassell estimates that he and CBST representatives looked at around 40 spaces. Kleinbaum fell madly in love with the Washington Square Methodist Episcopal Church (a pre-civil-war building belonging to a congregation with a history of fighting for equal rights and justice), but the church building was on the market for only 12 hours before being snapped up by a developer (it’s now been gutted and turned into four ultra-luxe condo units).
Eventually CBST found the Cass-Gilbert-designed Masonic building at 131 West 30th, in the city’s former fur district. A congregant recalled, “When we first saw the basement, there were all these tails hanging from a pipe.”
The building, with stone carvings of eagles and lions in front, has 50 feet of storefront window space. The old one had none. “You had to go into a courtyard at Westbeth and up these stairs,” Kleinbaum said. “It was like a lesbian bar in the 1970s: You have to follow special instructions to get there and once you’re in, you can’t see the outside and they can’t see you.” Now the community will be visible to everyone.
Visitors will enter CBST’s new space through purple glass doors between the thick glass windows (treated with blast film, a protective measure used by embassies around the world) into a lobby with 16-foot ceilings and a vertical sheet of purple glass with the words “tov l’hodot l’Adonai,” meaning “it’s good to give thanks to God,” etched into them.
The lobby will be used as a gathering and meeting space, with comfortable sofas that weren’t yet there when I toured. The main sanctuary has a giant central cement column that helps support the 18 floors of apartments above the shul; in an architectural lemons-into-lemonade situation, Cassell and company installed the ner tamid directly into the column. The most prominent feature of the room is a huge, sloping, crimped cement wall that slants backwards; at the top of it is a gap with a skylight through which you can see the sky and the brick wall next door. The striations in the cement make the room’s acoustics better. My honest visceral reaction to the stripy cement wall was, “Oh look, an ossified version of those sad floor-to-ceiling gray Levelor office blinds.”
But the rest of the room was much happier: arcs of gracefully curved burgundy velvet benches, “made by the Queen’s pew maker,” noted Cassell; elegant dark woven textured Knoll textile walls; an ark for the shul’s five Torah, with an outer sliding panel of twisted oak recalling the Etz Hayim, the tree of life, with an inner textile lining woven from gold, bronze and rough twine, made by an art collective in Bogota, Colombia. It hadn’t yet been installed, and was resting on a box next to me as Cassell and Kleinbaum spoke. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of it—it was such a beautiful mix of rustic and elegant, geometric-mod and traditional. Seeing my delight, Cassell said, “We had a basic charge early on that things had to be fabulous. But the natural, handmade quality is also important.” Behind it, inside the ark, there will be a parochet, a Torah curtain, laser-cut in a pattern designed by Cassell and derived from a floral motif in a frieze in a 14th century synagogue in Toledo, Spain. The congregation wanted to be sure the building featured elements from Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrahi cultures.
In the back of the sanctuary is the yahrzeit wall. This is a huge, important feature for a congregation that in the ‘80s and ‘90s lost nearly 40 percent of its membership to AIDS. Gray glass encloses the wall of names, with strings of wires lit with LEDs that illuminate during the person’s yahrzeit week. The names of those who died of AIDS are lit continuously. “I was 33 years old when I came to CBST, and I was burying people my age,” Kleinbaum said. “Funeral after funeral after funeral.” Today, the congregation—around 600 members “and 5000 people who join us at the Javits Center for the High Holidays and think they’re members, so we have to convince them of what membership actually means”—is thriving.
Now many families with kids call the synagogue home. The four multi-purpose rooms on the lower level, beneath the sanctuary, will be filled every Shabbat with children’s classes and activities. But the awareness of who isn’t there hits Kleinbaum every day. We headed down to CBST’s lower floor. There are words embedded in the sparkling stone steps. “How many projects do you get to put Walt Whitman in the terrazzo for?” Cassell asked. The words are excerpts from a poem that also appears in the shul’s siddur (“I hear and behold God in every object…in the faces of men and women I see God.”). The full poem is written in the shul’s elevator, which is part of CBST’s determination to exceed the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act (even though, as a religious institution, it’s exempt from them entirely). There’s an induction hearing loop for hard-of-hearing visitors, with sign language interpretation available at major services and by request at any other time. The shul uses lighting recommended by Jewish Guild for the Blind and has automated entry doors and a ramp up to the bimah. Mezuzot are placed low enough that people in wheelchairs can reach to kiss them. Environmentalism is also part of the congregation’s mission; after six months in use the building will be LEED-certified gold from the U.S. Green Building Council.
Downstairs, there’s an ark from 1920 that was rescued from the Tremont Temple in the Bronx, which long ago merged with a congregation in Scarsdale, NY. There are also four multipurpose rooms and a huge teaching kitchen that made me salivate. (There will be cooking classes.) All four classrooms are full of kids on Shabbat, and the rest of the space will be in pretty steady use too. “We have a bat mitzvah coming up of a kid I did the baby-naming for,” Kleinbaum noted with a smile. “We have weddings in April and May; we’re hosting a conference in May for Jews of Color; we’re going to have a Jewish Queer Youth drop-in group meeting here and we’re working with SAGE to do a daytime group for LGBT seniors.”
My favorite part of the building, though, is the main bathroom, decorated in bright pinks and oranges. The city’s building code said there have to be men’s and women’s bathrooms. But it was vital to CBST’s leadership that all restrooms be available to anyone, “of any gender identity or gender expression.” Kleinbaum wrote a heartfelt letter to the buildings department and to everyone’s surprise was immediately granted an exemption, along with good wishes to the transgender community from the inspector. So there’s a main door to a bathroom with several roomy, completely enclosed stalls, with each little room painted a brilliant shade of orange or pink. In the shared space around the sinks, the walls are papered with cheery custom wallpaper in a pattern of stripes and squares that incorporates photos (some black-and-white, some tinted pink or orange) and flyers and news clippings from the congregation’s history….including an ominous letter from a congregant in 1981 describing symptoms of what turned out to be a terrible new disease.
I felt myself welling up. In the bathroom, on a group tour, which made me feel like an idiot. This is a time of transition for CBST, as it is for all synagogues, gay and straight, as Jews in America continue to struggle over what Jewish identity means to them. So I loved the way the bathroom embraced the past—in all its joys and its sorrows—as well as looked to the future. “How do you interpret ‘radically traditional?’ ” Cassell asked, using one of Kleinbaum’s favorite descriptors for the congregation. “It’s been a moving journey for us as well.”
I’ll conclude with Kleinbaum’s words. “According to sociologists of religion, there are three elements that are important to religious life. First is the liturgy—the music, which is so important to us at CBST. Second is the intellectual life, the teachings and services and life of the mind. And the third thing is community. Even if you hate the rabbi, you can love the community! Our goal is to give people all three reasons to come here. And this space really reflects the soul of CBST.”
Related: Gay Synagogues’ Uncertain Future
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.