This fall, when I embarked on a quest to find a Hebrew school for my kids, I did not expect one of the top contenders to be Congregation Beth Simchat Torah.
We are gay-friendly and the proud aunt and uncle of an adorable baby with two mommies. But my husband and I are straight — and CBST, after all, has the distinction of being the world’s largest lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgendered synagogue.
Nonetheless, when we availed ourselves of the West Village congregation’s free High Holy Day tickets, our two daughters had a blast at the accessible, engaging children’s services and happily marched up to the bima with more than 100 other kids for a Rosh HaShanah blessing.
This winter, when I brought the girls to a ShirLaLa concert at the shul, we expected the music to be great, since we’d already heard the Jewish kiddie rocker at other New York venues. But I was struck by how well-organized the event was, with a variety of educational and fun pre- and post-concert activities, everything from making cookies in the shape of Hebrew letters to watching a real-live Torah scribe to coloring our own mini Torah scrolls. I also liked the friendly, comfortable vibe and the fact that the kids and their parents were more racially and economically diverse than those at most Manhattan synagogues I’ve visited.
Back in 1973 when a small group of gay men founded CBST, they surely couldn’t have predicted that within four decades straight parents would be thinking about joining.
Back then, when same-sex marriage was virtually unheard of and gays and lesbians had to choose between having children or coming out, who could have anticipated that the shul would run a religious school, host regular baby naming ceremonies or be looking into the possibility of opening a full-time nursery school?
While families with small children are definitely still a minority in the 850-household congregation, the community is in the midst of what some have termed a “gay-by boom.”
“Within the last seven years there has been a true explosion of children at CBST,” says Shelli Aderman, a longtime member who comes regularly with her wife, Narda Alcorn and their children, 4-year-old Malka and 18-month-old Noah Matan. “Its’ phenomenal in a good way … Now, it’s like who isn’t talking about creating a family?”
As the CBST website puts it, “One of the most dramatic changes over the last 10 years has been the number of members who have welcomed children into their lives.”
The playroom off the sanctuary (which doubles as the board’s meeting room) is brimming with toys, the walls adorned with children’s art. And among the approximately 100 people participating in a recent intergenerational congregational retreat at Camp Isabella Freedman, in Falls Village, Conn., were 30 children.
Twice a month, between 20-30 children show up for Alef-Bet Shabbat, a musical Shabbat service for ages 0-5. While more are anticipated next year, currently 14 elementary-school-age kids are enrolled in Limmud b’Shabbat, the religious school that grew out of CBST’s participation in Re-Imagine, a UJA-Federation of New York project to help synagogues make their religious schools more engaging.
“For us it was more about imagining than re-imagining,” says Andrew Ingall, who has been a member of CBST since 2000, and with his partner Neil Hoffman, a former board member, is the father of 3 1⁄2-year-old Shirley.
“We didn’t have a formal Hebrew school in place like many other synagogues who participated in Re-Imagine, so it was very open to us what we wanted to envision for education,” Ingall adds. “In the end, we decided to focus on what a lot of synagogues are doing: a Shabbat-centric education program that emphasizes family education.”
Meeting on Shabbat is particularly practical at CBST because its members commute in from all over the city and have difficulty bringing children to mid-week after-school sessions.
Ingall and Hoffman, for example, live in Washington Heights, whereas the Aderman-Alcorns trek in from Harlem. Other families with small children come from as far as Brooklyn, the Norwood section of the Bronx and New Jersey.
The synagogue has experimented with supplementing the Shabbat school with smaller mid-week programs in different neighborhoods, but has so far been unable to pull together enough families in any one location.
While most CBST congregants have welcomed the stroller-riding, diaper-wearing newcomers, the so-called gay-by boom has not been without its challenges.
As in any synagogue, some people have complained about kids making too much noise.
Exacerbating the tension is the fact that “for some people having children around is a reminder of a lot of pain,” says Rabbi Melissa Simon, the Cooperberg-Rittmaster rabbinical intern and director of children’s education.
That’s because many of the older members “had to make a choice between having children and coming out,” explains Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, who has led the congregation since 1992.
Many members closeted themselves for years in heterosexual marriages in order to have children and others, who left heterosexual marriages when they realized they were gay, lost custody of their children after they came out.
“It was a horrible choice people had to make, and whichever choice people made they felt sadness and loss,” Rabbi Kleinbaum says. “It’s not a simple thing.”
Back in 1999, when Rabbi Kleinbaum delivered a sermon calling for the synagogue to create a Hebrew school, it was “very controversial,” she says.
Nonetheless, “ultimately [having children around has] become something the community has really embraced,” Rabbi Simon says.
Indeed, Aderman says that at the congregational retreat this year, “some of us had to fight to get a chance to hold our own children!”
“This has given people who aren’t parents the opportunity to be surrogate aunts and uncles,” she adds.
And more children may soon be on the way. The synagogue recently formed a committee to investigate launching a nursery school, with the goal of opening a program within five years.
“We want it to be a Jewish progressive preschool that gay and straight families can send their children to, knowing they will see all kinds of Jewish families,” Rabbi Kleinbaum says.
The striking diversity of CBST’s families is one of the features parents are quickest to praise about it.
While the majority of members are LGBT, Rabbi Kleinbaum estimates that about 15 percent are straight. On the High Holy Days, straight people, drawn by the free tickets, make up more like 30-40 percent.
“We don’t discriminate,” Rabbi Kleinbaum says. “We welcome everyone.”
Among the LGBT families are interfaith and interracial couples, parents who’ve adopted children from all over the world, single-parent families and virtually every other shape, color and size of family.
“Never has there been a group of more wanted children,” says Aderman, noting that many CBST parents struggled for years to conceive or adopt. “However the families have been created — through surrogacy, adoption, artificial insemination or whatever; it’s all cool, it’s all welcome.”
Aderman is pleased that her children — who, like her wife, are African American — are part of a Jewish community in which they don’t feel at all unusual or different.
“This is a space where they can be near families like theirs,” she says. “That’s something no other environment is offering.”
Of the straight families attracted to CBST, many are multiracial ones seeking “a Jewish educational experience where they see other children and adults that look like them,” Rabbi Simon says.
Says Ingall, “For us, it’s really important for [Shirley] to get exposed to different kinds of families, and that’s been a great benefit to belonging to CBST.”
He and his partner, Hoffman, also belong to a synagogue closer to their Upper Manhattan home, the Fort Tryon Jewish Center, and “we feel very welcomed there,” he says, noting that at least two other families there are LGBT.
Nonetheless, CBST’s greater diversity “is something we really treasure, and we’re not quite willing to let it go, even though it’s a shlep,” he says.
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