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Monday, February 10, 2014

A Promised Land For LGBT Jews in NYC


NEW YORK – In 1973, an ad was placed in The Village Voice calling for gay Jews to meet for Friday night services. Eleven men and a Christian woman named Mary showed up at the basement of the Church of the Holy Apostles, in Chelsea. Saul Mizrahi was one of them.

Last Wednesday, Mizrahi stood with a bright yellow hard hat and a purple scarf among the rubble of a former fur shop on 30th Street in midtown Manhattan. 

He was joined by approximately 60 other members of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender congregation which grew out of a minyan (prayer quorum) to become one of the largest LGBT synagogues in the world.

A few days shy of its 41st anniversary, the congregation of CBST gathered to mark the start of construction on what will soon be its permanent home.

“I’m a wandering Jew in the desert,” Mizrahi told Haaretz. “Now I’m in this promised land.”

That fitting biblical metaphor was frequently evoked at the event, in casual conversation as well as during the short ceremony in which the space was blessed, and thanks were offered to the construction supervisors and architects charged with transforming the 17,000-square-foot space into a spiritual center.

After years of searching, the 30th Street location was purchased in 2011, precipitating the launch of a $16-million capital campaign (approximately $7 million for the property itself and the remainder for design, construction and operating costs). The finished product will boast a 300-seat sanctuary, a chapel, classrooms, offices and a space for social activities.

Of course, all that doesn’t come close to being large enough to accommodate the more than 4,000 people who join CBST annually for High Holy Day services, which are among the most popular in New York City. For that, the congregation – which is not affiliated with any denomination or movement – will continue to use the sprawling Javits Center.

But much else will change for the members once the synagogue's permanent home is complete. For one thing, Friday nights won’t be spent setting up chairs, said Aari Ludvigsen, an architect and project coordinator. No more one-night-only holy spaces. No more meetings in coffee shops. All aspects of this community’s identity – from religious to social action, from children- to transgender-oriented – will be integrated in one vibrant hub.

From seed to forest

The ceremony on Wednesday was almost cancelled due to the weather, which pelted New Yorkers with frozen rain (which is different, and far worse, than snow), turning street corners into slushy, icy ponds. But the event was held because, as CBST senior rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum told the crowd, “We want this project to be moving forward.”

She spoke in front of a large, white, plaster wall covered with multicolored messages. Attendees squatted to add their last-minute blessings before the wall was symbolically demolished.

“May our new home be a place of contemplation & inspiration,” read one quote. “Finally!” read another. A third simply proclaimed: “Norah’s Bat Mitzvah, 2026.”

(One of Norah’s moms is CBST assistant rabbi Rachel Weiss, who led the group in song and prayer at last week's ceremony.)

The congregation’s president, Bill Hibsher, explained that the timing of the building coincided with a baby boom in the community. Weiss pointed out that 10 years ago, there were less than a dozen children among the congregation’s families. Today, there are hundreds.

Following the brief speeches, the rabbis passed around two sledgehammers. Ludvigsen was honored with the first whack. Parts of the wall proved stubborn, others gave way without a fight. With each swing, the crowd cheered.

Since 1975, one of the congregation’s primary meeting places has been a communal space rented in the Westbeth complex in Greenwich Village; in less than a year, if all goes according to plan, CBST's name will be on the front door here.

“This is my space, no landlord can tell me what to do,” said Mizrahi. “We are the makers of our own destiny now.”

As for how the new premises will change the congregation, no one knows. “I’m clueless,” said Hibsher. “This space will be transformative in many ways we don’t know.”

Mizrahi simply shakes his head in wonder at how much has changed in the 41 years since that first minyan: CBST now counts over 1,100 members.

“You plant a seed,” he said, “and all of a sudden there’s a forest.”

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