Since 1973, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah has been a home and haven for LGBTQ Jews and our allies in and around New York City.
The Early Years
In 1973, Jacob Gubbay, a gay Jew from India living in New York, noticed a small ad for a gay Passover Seder to be held on the 30th of March at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Chelsea. There Gubbay volunteered to lead the Seder, and that night--retelling the story of our liberation from Egyptian slavery--the idea of a gay synagogue was born.
Shortly after this first gathering, Jacob Gubbay succeeded in negotiating for permission to conduct weekly Friday night services in the church annex on West 28th Street. Nearly a year after the first Seder, a small ad appeared in the Village Voice announcing the gay synagogue’s first Friday night service. That evening in February turned out to be a miserable, freezing night, and barely a minyan attended. Someone carried a shopping bag with candles, wine, a kiddush cup, and challah. The synagogue, still unnamed, became known as “the shopping bag synagogue” because every week the synagogue’s belongings were brought to the service in a shopping bag.
News of the synagogue quickly spread by word of mouth and every year the number of congregants increased. By 1975 nearly 200 people attended High Holiday services and over 100 were regularly attending Friday night services. At this point, it was clear that the synagogue (recently named Congregation Beit Simchat Torah), would need a place of its own. In 1976 CBST moved to a loft in the Westbeth complex on Bethune Street in Greenwich Village, the space it still occupies.
The AIDS Crisis
In 1982, when an immunological disease began to spread among gay men, CBST held a symposium on “gay diseases,” an extraordinary event attended by 350 people. Who could have predicted that the AIDS epidemic would dominate CBST life for more than a decade? A congregation with a relatively youthful profile, CBST had experienced only six member deaths in its first nine years, but by 1992, the death toll from AIDS had risen to over 100; by 1997, when new medications succeeded in slowing the disease, another 50 had died. And the deaths of lovers, family, and friends multiplied these losses many times over.
1992: The Turning Point
CBST has always prided itself on the quality of its lay leadership, but as the AIDS death toll mounted, the need for dedicated professional leadership became urgent. The Board conducted a two-year search for a rabbi who could provide pastoral counseling to the ill, and officiate at the all-too frequent funerals. Toward that end, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum was hired in 1992. Rabbi Alexander Schindler z”l, then president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, officiated at her installation on September 11, 1992, an event he described as “a joyous occasion, to be sure, but also a moment filled with trembling awe, a moment fraught with far-reaching consequence for Rabbi and congregation alike.” Indeed, the arrival of Rabbi Kleinbaum--a lesbian, social activist, ardent Yiddishist, devoted Torah student--marked the beginning of an epoch at CBST.
Indeed, 1992 was a turning point in another way as well. Unable to accommodate the hundreds of people attending the Yom Kippur services, CBST moved the venue to the Jacob Javits Convention Center, where over 2,200 people came, the largest gathering of lesbian and gay Jews in history. Thanks to the Open Door campaign, a project of longtime CBST member and gay community activist Irving Cooperberg z”l, attendance at Kol Nidre services has only grown, reaching as much as 6,000 after September 11, 2001.
Today CBST serves under the leadership of Senior Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, listed at #15 on the Daily Beast's America's Top 50 Rabbis for 2013, and the leadership of Assistant Rabbi Rachel Weiss. Membership has swelled to over 1,000 individuals. CBST continues our unique Open Door Policy which allows people regardless of ability to donate or membership to attend all of our services, including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, without any minimum payment. Many of us know what it was like to not have a place to feel welcome and pray when we needed it, so now we have made sure we created a place where all can come to pray and feel a sense of community when they need it.
Our Shelter of Peace initiative has also helped CBST to be a leading voice for the religious community in helping LGBTQ homeless youth to gain the resources they need for safe and secure beds in shelters across New York.