The Ford Foundation, one of the country’s largest private foundations, has set a course of late to influence the religious debate in America, and this week its largesse reached to the world’s largest gay and lesbian synagogue.
“I have been funding a number of projects to bring new voices into theological discussions and debate,” said Ford program director Constance Buchanan, explaining the $250,000 grant to Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in Greenwich Village, believed to be the first time Ford has funded an individual synagogue.
It is part of an effort, Buchanan said, to support voices marginalized in religious traditions, like women and gays.
With the grant, CBST, as the synagogue is informally called, will be able to hire an executive director for two years and perhaps an assistant. It would mark the first time the expanding 26-year-old congregation on Bethune Street would have a paid professional to administer a host of community programs.
Last year CBST received a four-year, $168,000 UJA-Federation Continuity Grant for an educational series for adults and children.
The Ford grant is part of the $8 billion Ford Foundation’s efforts to support religious institutions and programs worldwide promoting the foundation’s objectives: reducing poverty, urging international cooperation and advancing human achievement. In the past, the foundation has funded religious organizations in their work delivering social services and supporting civil rights, Buchanan said. But in 1997, the foundation began to fund programs that deal with religious belief systems themselves.
“What’s new about that is the focus on religious tradition as a meaning and values system,” she explained.
In the case of Beth Simchat Torah, Buchanan said the congregation was awarded because it meets the criteria of “knowledge building”; that is, promoting the understanding of the moral sources of religious tradition.
“The congregation is a theologically committed institution which is developing gay and lesbian perspectives on Judaism. It’s an important marginal group shedding light on Judaism,” she said.
Buchanan also praised CBST’s Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum as “an outstanding woman leader” who promotes the innovative concept of the civic role of a congregation.
“The grant from the Ford Foundation will enable us to better meet the challenges of rapid growth that have constantly threatened to overwhelm us,” Rabbi Kleinbaum said in a statement. The rabbi this week began a six-month sabbatical from the congregation.
Buchanan said she has funded about 100 religious institutions or programs in the past two years. For example, the foundation is supporting a study at Rice University in Texas about the differences between American and Asian Buddhism. It is also funding a study at Columbia University of Islamic communities in the tristate area.
Interfaith groups are also a priority for the foundation. Buchanan said grants have been awarded to the Interfaith Alliance in the U.S. and the World Conference on Religion and Peace, which intervenes in international conflicts and civil wars.
The emphasis on religion started with foundation president Susan Berresford, who upon her appointment in 1997 said she was interested in focusing attention on religion and media, as well as issues such as poverty and education.
One congregation leader at CBST said the Ford Foundation is recognizing the benefits of gay and lesbian people being affiliated with a spiritual community in terms of support and health care issues. “They see it as a way to promote inclusiveness as a whole,” this leader said. “They see the implications in some of the things our synagogue is doing in the community,” including running rabbinical internship programs and sponsoring a variety of adult education programs geared for gay and lesbian Jews.
Until now, CBST, which has about 1,000 members, has had to make do with a small office staff, a few paid professionals and a cadre of volunteers. The High Holy Days services this year drew about 3,500 worshipers to the Jacob Javits Center.