Gay-Friendly Synagogue Gets Own Space in Garment District
GARMENT DISTRICT — After decades of using borrowed space in churches, event spaces and community centers, the world's largest synagogue for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, & questioning congregants has finally purchased its own space.
Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), an inclusive Manhattan synagogue that was founded in 1973, closed on a 15,000 square-foot commercial condominium on 130 West 30th Street last week.
"Now we'll finally have the physical presence to support our symbolic presence," said CBST Rabbi Rachel Weiss, 35. "They say the Jews wandered in the desert 40 years, so it's fitting we'll move in on our 40th anniversary."
CBST currently has its offices and classroom in a rented loft in the Westbeth Complex on 57 Bethune Street, in Greenwich Village. Its Shabbat services, however, are held further uptown in Chelsea's Church of the Holy Apostles, and its high holy day services have taken place at spaces including the Javits Center, Town Hall, and other locations. All of the relocation can cause a disjointed feel, said Rabbi Weiss.
It counts approximately 1,000 members of its congregation, although its High Holiday services have attracted as many as 4,000.
"The space we've been in is grossly inadequate," said Rabbi Weiss, who supervises children's programming at CBST. "We have three classes all in one classroom [at the same time]."
The congregation's new location currently houses a purse shop, which will rent its space from CBST until the end of the year, and another store that recently closed.
After a gut renovation of the building costing $8 million, the congregation plans to occupy its new home by 2013, Weiss said.
The purchase represents a major victory for the congregation, which began with a dozen men meeting for prayers and discussion in a church annex, said Gabriel Blau, director of development and communications.
"We've been actively searching for a home for the past 16 years," said Blau, noting the difficulty of finding a suitable space for a sanctuary, classrooms, and offices in Manhattan.
"This is a tremendous moment in our history," he said, adding that the recent passage of the Marriage Equality Bill, for which CBST campaigned, further magnified the community's elation.
"The bill passed the day after we bought the space," recalled David Wine, 53, a congregant for the past 14 years. "And [it passed] during service, when 600 people were at service. It was incredible."
Rabbi Weiss also marveled at the convergence of events.
"I literally went from the board room signing papers [for the new space], to the synagogue for pride service, to march to Stonewall and celebrate," she said, adding that each day they now receive multiple calls of same-sex marriage ceremony requests.
"How great it will be, to have them in our own sanctuary," she added.
Wine said that even with no permanent space, CBST has always provided him with a strong sense of community, since he joined after divorcing his ex-wife and accepting he was gay.
"I had a young son who I wanted to expose to the Jewish and gay communities, to reinforce positive notions [of the groups]," said Wine. "I was struck by their openness."
The congregation, he said, pulls particularly large crowds on high holidays like Yom Kippur, when it hosts about 4,000 people at services at the Javits Center.
"The congregation is for people who need a spiritual home those few days or for the whole year," said Wine, who runs the congregation's Capital Campaign to raise funds for the synagogue.
The campaign recently reached the halfway mark of its $16 million fundraising goal.
Observing the increase of support and membership, Wine said the congregation's purchase and the gay marriage bill are part of a bigger trend.
"I think the timing is no accident. As the LGBTQ community has mobilized and become more active and has grown, CBST has certainly grown in numbers," he said.
"There was this confluence on the social justice side, and on the political side."
Still, Wine is awestruck that the moment has come.
"I'm beside myself," he said. "I can't believe this has all come into fruition.