In what may be the largest Kol Nidrei service in New York City, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah is expected to host about 4,000 people at the Javits Center on Friday night. These services are free of charge, open to all.
“It’s actually very intimate,” says Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, spiritual leader of CBST, known in shorthand as the city’s gay synagogue. “I feel very connected. It’s very spiritually nourishing, a deep experience. It’s what our services are usually like, just a lot more people in the room.”
The Crystal Pavilion space has a soaring glass ceiling and three walls of glass, so that for Neilah, the final service, congregants can watch the sun setting over the Hudson as the gates of heaven are said to be closing.
“These are 4,000 Jews in synagogue who want to be there,” William Hibsher, the immediate past president of the congregation says. Attendees include synagogue members and their families and friends, along with others, including many straight people. The synagogue describes itself as an LGBTQS synagogue, inclusive of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
“Our mission has always been to serve a congregation that’s bigger than our congregation,” longtime member Regina Linder says. “Ingathering is a way to describe what we do.”
This season, CBST is celebrating its history, with the publication of an illustrated volume, “Changing Lives, Making History: Congregation Beit Simchat Torah – The First Forty Years” written by Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen, who served for a decade at CBST as a rabbinic intern and associate rabbi. The congregation’s roots go back to February 1973, when a small group of gay Jews, just about a minyan, met to celebrate Shabbat together, in the annex of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Chelsea. That the book’s publication is closer to the 41st anniversary is a matter of publishing deadlines, and doesn’t diminish the community’s proud moment.
The handsomely designed book traces the synagogue’s history, drawing on archival materials, photographs, first-person accounts, recorded interviews, early newsletters (which were mailed in unmarked envelopes to protect members’ identities) and newspaper accounts and includes profiles of its lay and rabbinic leaders. It is also a larger story of what was going on in New York City over these years and the evolution of the LGBT movement — and an important contribution to American Jewish history. Now, LGBT Jews may feel comfortable attending many synagogues of various denominations, and that’s a testament in part to CBST’s pioneering efforts.
Soon after the first meeting in 1973 — launched with a tiny ad in the Village Voice — the numbers began to grow. As Rabbi Cohen explains, the idea of being deeply Jewish and openly gay was radical at the time. In those early days, members would chip in a dollar or two to cover costs. One event that solidified the new congregation was the Yom Kippur War, when many Jews sought community. News of the congregation was spread through flyers at bars and Village shops, advertisements and, in December 1973, an article in The New York Times, in which those interviewed used either their first name only or a fictitious name.
The synagogue was incorporated in November 1973 and, interestingly, the name was supposed to be Congregation Beth Torah V’Simchah, or Congregation of Learning and Joy. But Rabbi Cohen points out that the member filing the papers didn’t know Hebrew well and mixed up that name with the name of the holiday, Simchat Torah. Over the years there were efforts to change the name, but none of the alternatives galvanized the congregation. So, as the newsletter reported, “BST to stay BST.”
In the early days, a lapsed and charismatic chasid known as Reb Pinchas emerged as the volunteer spiritual leader of the fledgling group. His partner at the time was the son of a black Baptist minister. In 1974, Reb Pinchas said, “There is a chasidic belief that each man has a unique task to perform in life. Perhaps this is mine — to help the straight world understand us and to help gays feel better about themselves.” Reb Pinchas has since left his non-Jewish partner and CBST and returned to an orthodox life and chooses not to be identified in the book. But many of his teachings live on in the synagogue’s traditions.
It was Reb Pinchas who came up with the line from Psalms — “The stone the builders refused has become the cornerstone” (118:22) — to describe the gay message to the Jewish world. That line is the epitaph to this book, and also hangs prominently in the synagogue’s temporary sanctuary, at the Church of the Apostle.
The most traumatic period was the 1980s, when members began to get very sick and die of AIDS. The numbers are impossible to verify, but it is thought that between100 and 130 members died of AIDS — that is, nearly half of the men at CBST.
“It was loss and loss, a numbness after a while,” Linder recalls.
Rabbi Kleinbaum was installed as the first full-time rabbi in 1992, when the need for pastoral care was urgent. “I came in the middle of the epidemic,” she says, “and buried several people during my first month, including the president who hired me.”
Most sensitively, Rabbi Cohen documents the devastation and honors the memory of those who died, telling their stories. She also demonstrates the cultural changes, through language and layers of hiddeness, as to how the disease was discussed and faced. Now, the names of the dead are listed at the front of the sanctuary. Their absence is very much a presence in the synagogue. Members say that Yizkor services at CBST are particularly poignant, when all the names are read aloud.
On a happier note, she describes another huge shift in the community: the increase in children. With changing cultural sensibilities and advanced reproductive technology, the community includes about 150 children, with a Hebrew school to serve them, children’s services on Shabbat and holidays and educational programming. On the first day of Rosh HaShanah, Rabbi Kleinbaum invited all of the children up to the bimah for a blessing.
Rabbi Cohen, who now serves as director of the Center for Jewish Living and of the Center for Israel at the JCC in Manhattan, also documents CBST’s purchase of a home of its own in the Garment Center. They are beginning the reconstruction of the ground floor of a building on West 30th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues.
The author doesn’t gloss over rifts in the congregation’s history — when some members were upset about a change of location, or change in the service, or the synagogue’s full commitment to egalitarianism.
She speaks of the congregation’s strong and deep love and connection to Israel, “while at the same time conveying the complexities of the political and social reality.” Several weeks ago, Rabbi Kleinbaum was criticized by some for saying a prayer for peace, mentioning the names of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian children who had been killed.
“I don’t understand how anyone would fault a rabbi for recognizing that war is horrific,” Hibsher, the former president, said, affirming the board’s support of her, and that support of Israel is a core value of CBST. “Not to say that every member of the congregation agrees with that particular drash [sermon], but an overwhelming majority agree with her position on Israel, which is to foster intelligent conversation. “
Rabbi Kleinbaum visited Israel before the holidays. Over the summer, she organized conference calls with members of the congregation and Israelis from the left and the right including a journalist, a gay member of Knesset, the Israeli conservative movement’s first openly gay congregational rabbi, a reservist who served in Operation Protective Edge and a CBST member who made aliyah.
On Yom Kippur, they are hosting Yael Karrie, an Israeli rabbinical student who served on the Gaza border for the seven weeks of the war, leading Shabbat services for soldiers coming in and out of Gaza. She’ll lead a discussion during the afternoon break.
At a recent Friday night service, the order of prayers was like that of a traditional synagogue, with beautiful music by cantorial soloist Re’ut Ben-Ze’ev and Joyce Rosenzweig, the synagogue’s music director. Visitors were struck by the friendliness of the place. Johanna Sanders, a 22-year-old new member who first attended Shabbat service in June “and never stopped coming back” says, “You walk in and you are immediately embraced and celebrated for who you are.”
The rabbi announced an upcoming program to discuss the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “The Death of Klinghoffer.” This seemed to be signature CBST style and content: While some other synagogues and Jewish organizations around the city urged members to protest the Met’s production, CBST members were urged to see the opera and only then, after seeing it — unlike the protesters who haven’t seen any of it — talk about whether it is anti-Semitic, or “inappropriate to make an opera that gives emotional voice to a murderer.” The Opera Shmooze, after services on Nov. 7 is to be led by Rabbi David Dunn Bauer, CBST’s director of social justice, who is a former NYC Opera director and Metropolitan Opera stage manager.
On Tuesday, Oct. 7, at 7 p.m., Rabbi Ayelet Cohen will speak, along with Andy Cohen of Bravo, about “Changing Lives, Making History,” with a book signing and reception to follow, at the JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave. (at 76th Street), $12 members, $18 non-members.