Michael Levine remembers the days in which members of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, founded by 12 gay men in search of a Jewish connection, met for Friday-night services in the annex of a local church.
By the time Levine joined the congregation, in 1974, its numbers had expanded from 12 to about 100, and the organization was marking its first anniversary. But its members still met in the church, which could provide chairs for the services but little else.
Other material — such as wine, candles and copies of traditional prayers — were carried to the church in a shopping bag, said Levine, now 68. The situation even gave the congregation one of its monikers, he added — “the shopping-bag synagogue.”
Much has happened with the CBST community since those days, some of it positive and liberating for the congregation’s members, some of it, such as the AIDS crisis, tragic. But few of those events are as symbolic as the synagogue’s purchase of a new home — an action that CBST took June 24, after 16 years of searching, and one that will give the congregation its very first street presence.
The new home — the first property owned by the synagogue — is in two commercial condominiums at 130 W. 30th St., in the heart of New York’s Fashion District and an area close to several subway lines, as well as Penn Station. The building itself is a landmark 20-story tower designed by Cass Gilbert, a prominent American architect who also designed the Woolworth Building and the U.S. Custom House, both in Lower Manhattan, and the U.S. Supreme Court.
All that is emblematic of a congregation that has grown to almost 1,000 members. And those members are no longer in hiding, as some were in earlier years, leaders of CBST have suggested. Indeed, CBST now calls itself the world’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender synagogue, with a membership that includes a great many families and children — a development that would have been unimaginable to the 12 men who founded the congregation. In addition, CBST and its spiritual leader, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, are known for the critical role they’ve played in social issues, especially those affecting the LGBT community.
A new home for CBST also may be emblematic of the changing status of American gays, who are now more widely accepted than ever before. The changes are reflected in recent polls, which show that a slim majority of Americans now support gay marriage, and by the state’s recent passage of the Marriage Equality Act.
In light of those changes, leaders of CBST came to believe that the congregation was being poorly served by its current quarters, space in a West Village residential and artistic complex that the synagogue has rented since 1978. Visitors often have a hard time finding the synagogue, reached by walking through an interior courtyard and a ramp. The current home has 5,500 square feet of space for offices, a Hebrew school and a sanctuary that comfortably fits only about 300 people.
As a result, the synagogue conducts Friday-night services at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Chelsea, the same church in which the congregation began in 1973, and uses its own sanctuary only for Saturday-morning services. It also rents out the Jacob Javits Center for Yom Kippur services that are offered to the public at no cost and that attract more than 4,000 people — a tradition that CBST plans to continue even with its new home.
The congregation hopes to move into its new space at the beginning of 2013, which also coincides with CBST’s 40th anniversary, according to Stephen Frank, the synagogue’s president. Frank also took note of other coincidences surrounding the deal, which took place the day before the synagogue’s annual Pride Shabbat, a major event on its calendar, and the State Legislature’s vote on the gay-marriage bill.
“That it all came together on the day it did is unbelievable,” Frank said. “We couldn’t have written a story like that ourselves.”
In connection with the move, the congregation has hired a New York-based architectural firm, Architecture Research Office, to renovate the space and is in the midst of conducting a $16 million capital campaign, its first such fundraising drive. The campaign has already raised $7.1 million from less than 100 donors to finance the purchase, said David Wine, the campaign’s co-chairman. A second phase, scheduled to start this fall, will reach out to a much larger segment of the community, including friends of CBST, and is aimed at raising $8 million.
In contrast to the synagogue’s current quarters, its new home will include 17,000 square feet, including a ground floor, mezzanine and basement.
Last month’s deal culminated a 16-year search for the proper space, said William Hibsher, the Manhattan lawyer who spearheaded the effort. Hibsher described the task as a difficult one in a city like New York, where real-estate prices are high and buildings are often designed in such a way that they wouldn’t be conducive to a house of worship.
“In the course of over 16 years,” he recalled, “I’d say we looked at over 100 sites, and we seriously considered about 10 sites.”
While the move takes shape, the congregation’s leaders, staff and members are taking enormous joy from the deal.
“We have always dreamed of creating a more inclusive Judaism, and we have helped achieve that in innumerable ways,” Rabbi Kleinbaum said in a written statement. “The one thing we have never had is a home of our own — and, today, that dream, too, is becoming real.”
Ilene Sameth, the congregation’s executive director, said the new space should help the congregation become much effective in the work it does, including its spiritual, educational and social justice efforts.
Perhaps no one, though, is more excited than Michael Levine, a former president of the synagogue and one of the few people from its earliest days who are still active in CBST.
Levine heard about the then-fledgling congregation through a friend and was initially reluctant to join, he recalled, saying he wondered how there could possibly be a gay synagogue. He was still leading a “double life,” he said — few of his friends or relatives knew he was gay — and he “couldn’t believe that any institution could be both” Jewish and gay.
But he attended Yom Kippur services in 1974 to say Yizkor for his parents, Levine said, referring to the Jewish memorial prayer, and was astonished. As he remembers it today, “I was unbelievably touched to see a traditional Jewish service at a gay synagogue that reminded me my Jewish childhood in Brooklyn.”
Levine, who grew up in a Modern Orthodox household, said he always becomes overwhelmed with emotion whenever he carries one of the congregation’s five Torah scrolls. The emotion surfaces because he recalls his very first service at CBST, when the congregation used a borrowed Torah. “And now,” he added, “I can imagine that I’ll be carrying one of our five Torahs into our own space.”