An End to the Schlep as CBST Builds Temple in Midtown Manhattan
For years, the LGBT Jewish Congregation Beth Simchat Torah has struggled to find a home. Worshippers would sit cheek-by-jowl in a tiny space on Bethune Street, or make do by holding weekly services in an Episcopal Church, or deal with the crowds on High Holy days by renting out the Jacob Javits Center or Hammerstein Ballroom.
After decades of work, fund-raising and meetings, CBST has finally found a suitable location. In two years, they will open the doors on a beautiful new temple in an old Cass Gilbert landmarked building on West 30th Street that will finally be CBST’s own.
"After decades of anticipating and over 10 years of looking for a building that would be appropriate, we are shooting to open in 2014," said CBST Interim Executive Director Bruce Anderson.
The congregation, the best-known LGBT synagogue in the country, closed on the building with a $3 million mortgage, last Pride. Members raised $11 million of the $17 million needed for renovations are trying to raise another $5 million in the next year.
Anderson expects the lion’s share of this money to come a Dec. 9 gala that will feature Cynthia Nixon. If all goes according to plan, the new home will be ready in time for Pride next June.
Until that time, the congregation will remain at Bethune Street, which only fits about 100 people comfortably, with services at an Episcopal Church in Chelsea, that Anderson lamented, "has met our needs very well, but it’s not a synagogue, and there’s so many things we can’t do because we don’t have a sanctuary available more than one day a week."
The congregation grew out of its current location within a year of moving in, Anderson noted. He estimates that CBST now has more than 1,000 members (with 4,000 turning out for High Holy Days); about 100 members regularly attend weekly services.
3 Floors in an Office Building
The new CBST congregation is located at a double-wide storefront at 130 W. 30th Street, in a 20-story Cass Gilbert building near Madison Square Garden. It extends for 15,000 square feet over three floors (one a basement level). The main sanctuary on half of the first floor will accommodate 300 people, which will be more than adequate for most weekly services. The congregation plans to continue High Holiday services at the Javits Center for the foreseeable future.
Aari Ludvigsen, co-chair of the Design and Construction Committee, points to the way the congregation has been able to maximize the available space. Ludvigsen, herself an architect, says that there will be a test of a large panel of colored glass hanging in the vestibule to attract people’s attention without violating the exterior of the landmarked building. Engravings on an entryway panel will note everyone who donated more than $1,800 to the restoration.
"I like the idea of the landmark status, but it also means there’s more hoops to jump through," Anderson added.
The first floor will be divided into administrative offices and the sanctuary. A second-floor balcony will provide additional seating for services if needed. The rabbi’s office will be located on a second-floor cutaway.
"The highlight for me is that my office will be in the same space where we are having services, which makes coordination a lot easier," said Kleinbaum. "Now, there is no ancillary space for classrooms or discussion groups."
The back of the chapel will feature a see-through memorial wall with the names of deceased members that will light up on the anniversary of their death. A large sliding door will cover the Ark where the Torah resides, so that the sanctuary can be used for concerts or lectures. "We have one of the top acoustic firms in the country out of Chicago working on this," Ludvigsen noted.
The basement will offer a smaller chapel, a library, children’s classrooms and a kitchen. The chapel has a large table for tutoring or board meetings, and seating and lighting can be changed to suit the event.
The very high downstairs ceilings make it appropriate for the kiddush, the prayer over the wine that leads to snacks and socializing after Friday night services. Smaller services, baby namings, small weddings, lectures, musical performances are envisioned for the downstairs space.
CBST, 40 years old in 2013, was founded in 1973 by one of the founders of the LGBT Community Center. According to Anderson, about 90 percent of the congregation is LGBT. Many of the 10 percent straight members "came to support their own gay family members, and decided they liked it." He also noted the recent increase of young gay and lesbian families.
The new building will allow for weekly religious programming for both children and adults, Saturday Hebrew language classes, plus room for board meetings, discussion groups and a kitchen for adults to make the traditional Jewish challah bread, or for kids to make traditional Hamentashen (triangular-shaped cookies with jam centers) during the holiday of Purim.
CBST draws worshippers not only from the five boroughs but also the whole tri-state area. "It’s going to change the way a lot of people relate to CBST," said Ludvigsen of the downstairs. "We do a lot of social interactions, and this space will allow people to get together to work and plan. There will also be a large children’s classroom where we will have the service piped in, so you can be down there with your kids and still be engaged in what’s going on upstairs."
Infants up to 5 year olds make up the fastest-growing youth contingent; there are fewer children at the Bar and Bat Mitzvah age, that is, early teens. Ludvigsen speculated that at some point, the larger upstairs temple would be used for family services, with the smaller one downstairs reserved for adults only, "because when you add kids with adults, it’s getting bigger and bigger."
Kleinbaum was also excited about what the space could do for the growing youth population, as well as the growing senior population. "We will be able to partner with SAGE to address that more deeply," she said. CBST’s new location in "non-profit alley" is very close to the new SAGE Center at Seventh Avenue and 27th Street.
Rabbi Celebrates 20 Years at December Gala
Kleinbaum has served as the leader of CBST for the past 20 years, during which time her congregation has continued to grow under the mission statement of a "prevailing belief that is was possible to be both deeply Jewish and proudly gay."
"It’s been an amazing arc both historically and for CBST," said Kleinbaum. "The use of anti-gay bigotry in the name of religion exploded in these 20 years, and we have made great advances and scary developments, all of which makes CBST’s mission even more important."
She also took note of the impact that the AIDS epidemic had: "Most of the members of my community were HIV-positive, but now it’s no longer a death sentence." Most recently, broad political, legal and societal changes have made it much easier for congregants to marry and form families, and for the transgendered and gay youth to gain increased visibility.
The congregation plans to celebrate Kleinbaum’s milestone with both spiritual and social events. The spiritual component came via a Shabbat service on Sept. 7. The social component will be a large December fundraising gala on Dec. 9.
Former New York Times theater reviewer and columnist and current New York magazine columnist Frank Rich and lesbian actress Cynthia Nixon will talk to Kleinbaum about her 20 years’ experience at CBST.
The congregation has also spent the better part of the year putting together a coffee table book that spans the 40-year history of CBST, to be completed at the end of December, for an April 2013 release.
For the 40th anniversary, the congregation will host a concert co-produced with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS called "Broadway Sings the Jews." "We don’t know that every performer will be Jewish, but the composers will be," Anderson said. "We’ve never done anything on a Broadway stage, but they do it often and will help us pull it together."
While Kleinbaum has enjoyed celebrating her 20 years with the congregation and eagerly anticipates the opening of a permanent home at last, that hardly means she is ready to rest.
"I am looking forward to the new building," she said, "but I also want to develop a social justice institute under the umbrella of CBST, to continue the work we are doing locally and nationally on issues around sexuality, religion and social justice."
For more information, visit www.cbst.org/