NEW YORK — Inside the airy lobby, a pile of voter registration forms rests on a table.
The forms aren’t discreet, but then again, neither are the four rainbow flags hanging on the lobby wall, or the Black Lives Matter sign leaning against the window in Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum’s study.
And that’s as it should be inside the new home of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, one of the country’s largest and most prestigious LGBTQ synagogues. With 1,100 members, CBST welcomes gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender, and straight individuals and families. The building not only signifies CBST’s place in the community, it signifies its place in the continued struggle for social justice and civic action.
Since 1973, when 13 Jews gathered for their first minyan in the children’s room of the Church of the Holy Apostles, the synagogue has spent the better part of 43 years moving around lower Manhattan until finally finding its new home on West 30th Street.
“We were certainly the wandering Jews of New York,” Kleinbaum said, stopping to pause inside the foyer, the glazed lavender tinted windows casting a soft light.
Determined to put down permanent roots, the congregation launched the Home of Our Own campaign to raise the $23 million necessary for the new building. Over 1,000 donors contributed, some giving $5 and some up to $5.5 million. Each donation was recorded, and each equally important, Kleinbaum said, adding that some gave $25 a month, every month, for six years.
The synagogue’s home is now a 1929 Cass Gilbert loft building with a terra cotta and brick exterior. Vestiges of the neighborhood’s once thriving garment district are on display in various storefronts, from bead and crystal embellishments for formal wear to stacks of fabric in an array of colors.
As Stephen Cassell, a principal with Architecture Research Office (ARO), worked on transforming the 17,000-square-foot, three-story space, he and his team met with more than 100 synagogue members.
“We wanted to have a deep understanding of who they [the congregants] are. We wanted to get a handle on who CBST is and how we could reflect their deep values of which the rabbi speaks so eloquently,” Cassell said.
It quickly became clear to ARO that the congregation’s message of inclusivity and accessibility weren’t just incorporated into the synagogue’s symbols; they also had to be worked into the building’s construction and design.
“One of the basic themes was visibility. Before, when they were on Bethune Street, they were hidden away. You had to go up a ramp and around a corner to get in. Now it’s visible and directly engages with the city. The building says, ‘Here we are and we’re proud,’” Cassell said.
Likewise the interior reflects the ideas of being seen and heard.
For example no seat in sanctuary is more than 35 feet from the pulpit — even those in the mezzanine. Designed and fabricated in England, the custom carved oak pews can be stacked and rolled away to make space for weddings, Passover seders and other celebrations.
One of Kleinbaum’s favorite features in the sanctuary is the glass-fiber reinforced concrete wall that inclines about 10 degrees away. A skylight sits at the top and infuses the sanctuary with natural light.
They main sanctuary’s 606 Yahrzeit candles take the form of tiny LEDs set in a gray glass wall, beneath which is etched the name of a departed loved one.
When it came time to design the restrooms it was important to Kleinbaum and the congregation that they be non-gendered. That meant petitioning New York City’s Department of Buildings for permission.
With permission granted, the architect designed eight stalls with full height, heavy wood doors to guarantee privacy. Each stall is painted a vivid orange or red, echoing the rainbow flags hanging from the lobby walls.
The wallpaper in the restroom serves as a mini-history lesson. Photographs of Gay Pride marches, couples with their newborn babies, copies of the building department’s permission, and letters describing the early days of the AIDS epidemic line the walls.
Even the stairs between the lobby and basement level classrooms had to serve a greater purpose.
‘I kept thinking of how to make this a space that reflects our values, our Jewish values’
“I wanted them to encourage people to walk, I wanted them to be open. They have become a hang out place; people sit on them to eat lunch or to talk. It’s just the way I think. I kept thinking of how to make this a space that reflects our values, our Jewish values,” said Kleinbaum, once named one of Newsweek’s top 50 most influential rabbis.
Yet, for all its progressiveness, the synagogue pays quiet homage to Jewish life past and present, in New York City and around the world.
A custom-woven Bogotan tapestry hangs inside the Torah ark, which opens via sliding panel oak staves. Its 14th Century Spanish design reflects Sephardim.
An additional ark in the chapel library comes from the Tremont Temple Gates of Mercy in the Bronx. Dating from the 1920s, they have a musical motif, important to CBST, which holds many a concert.
Throughout the synagogue are mezuzot, many of which hang low enough for children or those in wheel chairs to touch. Cast in bronze, each one is engraved with a street address in Poland upon which a Jewish home once stood.
“The mezuzot shows our Ashkenazi Jewish history, the ark our immigrant history, so many Jews settled in the Bronx. It shows the history of people on whose shoulders we stand,” Kleinbaum said.
Of course many of those shoulders belonged to about one-quarter of the congregation who died from AIDS.
“AIDS hit and hit hard. I came here in 1992, in the midst of the epidemic. I did four funerals in the first month,” Kleinbaum said. “But thank God this synagogue existed. Most of the Jewish community at large came very late to the AIDS crisis. They just were not welcoming. This synagogue provided support. We socialized by going to memorials.”
The AIDS crisis is woven — quite literally — into the fabric of CBST. An AIDS quilt hangs on a wall outside the synagogue’s classrooms. Inside a meeting room hang pictures of past presidents and board members, more than half of who died from AIDS.
“He died. He died. He died. He died,” Kleinbaum said, pointing to pictures of past presidents and board members.
While AIDS touched so many of CBST’s congregants, many more have no remembrance of the time when the epidemic was at its height, particularly the 45 children enrolled in Hebrew School.
“We may as well be talking about the Civil War. It’s history to them,” she said.
For all its inclusiveness CBST isn’t immune from discord. Several members quit during and after Israel’s 2014 Operation Protective Edge, saying they felt their open support for Israel and Zionism was stigmatized.
On one shabbat service during that time Kleinbaum read aloud the names of Palestinian children killed in the conflict alongside Israeli soldiers. The synagogue’s decision to offer space and institutional sponsorship to a panel that included two anti-Zionist activists who had openly backed the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement further rankled members.
Disagreement and debate are part of what makes CBST a lively place and is to be expected; after all it’s a synagogue filled with energetic members, Kleinbaum said.
In the end CBST sees itself as championing human rights for all people, Israeli and Palestinian, white and African-American, gay and straight, she said.
“Social justice is an integral part of our identity. It’s very important to us,” Kleinbaum said.
So much so that the synagogue has a full time social justice rabbi.
On any given day there are meetings for various groups including the Green Team, an environmental group; RUSA, a group helping the Russian LGBTQ community; Gays for Gun Control; or Black Lives Matter.
The latter organization has stirred some controversy in the wider Jewish community after publishing a platform that included strong anti-Israel language.
Kleinbaum dismissed the notion that one must reject a movement because one doesn’t agree with certain of aspects of that movement.
“The larger issue here is that to have an America that reflects who we want to be we’ve got to care about black lives,” she said. “We can debate platforms and certain policy positions that are out there, but the larger issue here is that it’s an indisputable fact that black lives are not treated equally and we must show our support.”