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.
Community Life in the Early Years
By the time CBST moved into the Westbeth loft, some of the key elements of the community had already been put in place: a regularly elected Board of Directors; committees to manage CBST’s religious, educational, social, and activist programming; Hebrew and Yiddish classes; an annual second night Seder; a Talmud class; and more. Men and women of varying Jewish backgrounds joined the synagogue, and work began on developing a liturgy that would meet the needs of a gay congregation. All services were conducted by lay leadership.
CBST continued to increase membership, activities, and visibility. By 1981, there were 200 members, and upwards of 500 people attended that year’s Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service. CBST joined the first gay rights March on Washington in 1979, and became a regular stop on the rounds of politicians at all levels, from Manhattan Borough President Andrew Stein to Mayor Ed Koch to U.S. Congressman Theodore Weiss.
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.
Thanks to grants awarded to CBST over the years, CBST has been able to realize many of its visionary goals. Since 1996, The Cooperberg-Rittmaster Rabbinical Internship program has made it possible to select from numerous candidates two outstanding students from the Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist seminaries who work at CBST for a year. After serving as a Cooperberg-Rittmaster Rabbinical Intern at CBST for two years, Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen became Associate Rabbi in August 2002 and remains a vital source of leadership, insight, and knowledge for the CBST community.
Our Cantorial Internship program resulted in the hiring of our first full-time professional cantor, Cantor David Berger.
UJA and Ford Foundation grants have enabled CBST to build a staff infrastructure that now includes nine fulltime administrators.
Currently CBST is preparing for a capital campaign that will help secure a permanent home in which the entire community and staff can continue to actualize dreams that were never thought possible in 1973, when barely a minyan arrived for its first Friday night service.
Remarks by Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum to celebrate CBST's 26th Anniversary
I believe in cosmic influences: I believe that we influence the cosmos, that we influence the world. I believe that what you do, what I do, what we do, matters; our lives, our actions, our words, even our thoughts can make a difference. I believe that we are all here-every one of us-for the sake of what we can do together. Together, we can change the world.
By Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen
September 13, 2002, 8 Tishrei 5763
I am not sure that I have the words to express my tremendous joy at being here with all of you tonight. That seems appropriate on this Shabbat of Parashat Ha'azinu, when we acknowledge the limitations of prose and we realize that sometimes only poetry and song can express all that we need to, and on Shabbat Shuva, during these Yamim Nora'im when silence can be as important as speech and when we immerse ourselves in the music to carry us through the immensity of the liturgy.
In preparation for our 40th Anniversary History Project, CBST wants to remember those members (alive as well as those who passed) who had a great influence on the greater LGBT, Jewish and general communities. The list will include members like Mel Rosen's work with GMHC, Irving Cooperberg's part in the formation of the LGBT Community Center, and Peter Vogel's work with Lambda Independent Democrats in Brooklyn. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org with either details about yourself or other past or present CBST members who founded or led other organizations or the LGBT Movement.