LGBT-Friendly Synagogue Races to Raise $4M for New Building

By Mathew Katz on August 27, 2012 6:32am 

GARMENT DISTRICT — The world's largest LGBT synagogue has raised millions of dollars toward building a new, permanent home since buying space for it last year — but leaders fear that a $4 million fundraising shortfall may delay it from opening for the shul's 40th anniversary.

Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, a synagogue founded in 1973 that caters to the city's LGBT Jews and their friends and family, bought a 15,000 square-foot storefront space at 130 West 30th St. last year to turn into a modern place of worship.

The temple managed to raise $13 million of its $17 million goal for the project so far this year, but they're still $4 million short of its initial goal to launch construction on its new space so that it can be completed in time for CBST's 40th anniversary in 2013 — leaving organizers resigned to a 2014 opening.

Yet, with the Jewish High Holidays around the corner — Rosh Hashana starts on Sept. 16 — the synagogue emphasized that it never once considered changing a longstanding policy not to charge guests for access to its worship services.

"Any money we raise over the High Holidays are really just part of our annual operating budget," said Bruce Anderson, the Synagogue's executive director, who said CBST services attract roughly 4000 people every year.

"We don't focus at all on the capital campaign over the next six weeks," he added of the uniquely open-door policy, which is unlike many other synagogues in the city which charge hundreds of dollars per ticket.

Instead, Anderson said, the temple will shift its fundraising focus to non-members and larger donors.

Since purchasing the building, the synagogue's membership worked towards raising the roughly $17 million it will take to build. But after an initial torrent of support, fundraising has hit a slump.

"We're happy with the amount of money non-members have contributed, though the bulk of the money has pretty much been within the CBST world," said Anderson.

"So the next year has to pay more attention to the larger progressive Jewish world, the social justice world and philanthropists that mgiht take interest in our project."

Throughout its history, the synagogue shifted between locations as it grew. Beit Simchat Torah's current home is a small space in the West Village, though it holds bigger services, like Shabbat, at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Chelsea. For the high-demand High Holidays, CBST's Rabbis perform services at the Jacob Javits Center.

The new three-story space will include a sanctuary, a 625 square foot classroom and a single, gender-neutral bathroom that will accommodate all members, regardless of gender identity.

Their planned outreach includes a big-name event in December celebrating the 20th anniversary of Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum's service at the temple. To celebrate, the synagogue plans to bring in Cynthia Nixon and Frank Rich to interview Kleinbaum about Beit Simchat Torah's past and future — in the hopes of raising a half a million dollars in one fell swoop.

"Because it's the rabbi's anniversary, the idea is to raise enough money to put the bimah at the new synagogue in her name, in her honor," Anderson said, referring to the elevated platform in a shul where the Torah is read from.

"The price tag on that is $500,000."

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