Volume 81, Number 20 | October 20 - 26, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photos by Lesley Sussman

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum at C.B.S.T. at its current home at Westbeth.

Gay and lesbian synagogue set for exodus to Chelsea

The synagogue’s entrance is inside the Westbeth courtyard.

By Lesley Sussman

After 35 years in a windowless and out-of-the-way loft on Bethune St. in the Westbeth artists’ complex, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the city’s only synagogue for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews, is preparing to make its exodus to a new home in the heart of the Garment District.

The synagogue’s new 15,000-square-foot space at 130 W. 30th St. will encompass the entire ground floor, mezzanine and lower level of a 20-story landmarked building that was designed by preeminent American architect Cass Gilbert, who also designed the Woolworth Building on lower Broadway and the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.

According to Senior Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, the openly lesbian spiritual leader of the 900-plus-member congregation for the past 20 years, the new location will feature an open lobby and a spacious sanctuary with high ceilings.

The mezzanine, she said, will house offices and conference rooms for clergy and administrative staff, and the lower level — with its 12-foot ceilings and several skylights — will accommodate classrooms and multifunctional spaces for social and educational gatherings.

“We’ve outgrown our space here in Westbeth,” the rabbi said. “On Friday nights we have to hold our services at the Church of the Holy Apostles at Ninth Ave. and 28th St. because we don’t have room in our sanctuary. That’s why for almost 16 years we’ve been searching for a permanent home to accommodate our growing synagogue attendance.

“We’re not a wealthy synagogue,” she added, “but we’re very, very proud that we worked very hard and raised enough money to buy the space. Now we’re working on raising the money to renovate.”

Kleinbaum said if things go according to plan, she hopes to open the door for services sometime in 2013.

“Our 40th anniversary will be that year and it would be so beautiful and symbolic that after 40 years of wandering that we’d actually be able to move into that space,” she said.

The rabbi looks back at her years tending her flock at the current location with a sense of nostalgia.

“There were many debates back then in 1975 about moving to Westbeth,” she recalled.

“At the time we were renting space in the annex of Church of the Holy Apostles,” she continued, “and some people were worried about safety here because it was the far, far West. But others thought it would be great because we’d be close to the gay cruising grounds.”

But nearly four decades later things have worked out just fine, she said. Congregation Beit Simchat Torah has not only become a champion of Judaism and social causes for gay and lesbian Jews in the city, but it’s also the largest synagogue of its kind in the world, according to the rabbi.

“We started primarily and exclusively as a gay and lesbian synagogue back in 1973,” she said. “But at this point we have everyone attending our services. We’re open and welcoming to everyone. It’s fantastic. It’s very moving and inspiring.”

The rabbi proudly noted, “We had 4,000 people at the Javits Center this year where we rented space for Yom Kippur. We don’t even charge for tickets. We don’t want there to be any barriers for people who want to attend a High Holiday service.”

Rabbi Kleinbaum said she didn’t know how many gay and lesbian Jews there were in the city, but “I see more and more people coming out. More Jews are being comfortable being gay. Many more people are being visible.”

Leaving the West Village after nearly 40 years, she said, is emotional.

“I have very mixed feelings because I love this spot,” she said. “I love Westbeth and I love the history of the West Village. I’ve been in this space for 20 years and I can recall the faces of so many people who died from AIDS. I’m feeling a great deal of loss.

“On the other hand, it’s a wonderful feeling that we’re going to a new place that we purchased and where we can own our own space and be able to build a beautiful sanctuary and create the most beautiful services. Now we won’t have different locations for our Shabbat services and our offices. I’m looking forward to that.”

Another plus the new location offers is that it’s located in the old Garment District, the rabbi added.

“That has a Jewish poetry to it as well. We’re in an old furrier building, which doesn’t get more Jewish than that in this city,” she said. “It’s also a very authentic New York neighborhood.”

The rabbi said another advantage of the new location is that it will be easier to get to for many people in her congregation who come from throughout the tristate area.

“It’s a better location for transportation,” she noted. “We’re going to be closer to a lot of trains. And it’s still walking distance from the Village.

“We’re not abandoning the Village,” she emphasized. “Our heart is still here. But we think of the Village as expanding north now.”

Before taking this rabbinical post, Rabbi Klienbaum, who Newsweek named number 17 on a list of the country’s 50 top Jewish leaders, worked as a rabbi in a Washington, D.C., social justice organization.

Over the years, she has continued to involve herself and the synagogue in a variety of actions advocating political and social change to benefit lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people of all faiths.

“I believe that we are all here — every one of us — for the sake of what we can do together,” she said. “Together we can change the world. I believe that what you do, what I do, what we do matters.”

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