Cohen, Rabbi Ayelet S. “Changing Lives, Making History: Congregation Beit Simchat Torah”, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, 2014.
A Gay Synagogue in New York City
Yesterday I received a wonderful surprise in the mail the new book by Rabbi Ayelet Cohen that looks at the first 40 years of the first gay synagogue in the United States, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City. This is a coffee table sized book and one that I am sure that the members of the temple will be very proud of. It is a bit ironical that this book came out just as the temple is experiencing a rough time because of the war in Gaza and even though I have disagreed with the way the rabbi, Sharon Kleinbaum looks at the situation, I must admit that she has been instrumental in guiding the temple forward and to the place where it has been able to buy its own place.
The book is absolutely beautiful and it is a perfect way to celebrate the temple’s anniversary. It is chock full of amazing photographs and the text is beautifully written—so much so that it is almost possible to feel love jump off the page. In America, synagogues are very important especially in places where Jews are a minority (which, in effect, is everywhere outside of the State of Israel). The synagogue fosters the sense of community and belonging and is a place where like-minded people come to share their hearts and this is what is the overriding theme of this book and of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah.
Here is the history of the very first organized Jewish house of worship for the LGBT community. It all began with an ad in “The Village Voice” in 1973 that read “Gay Synagogue, Friday Night Service and Oneg Shabbat, Feb.9, 8:00 PM”. From that initial meeting in which some twelve men came, CBST has grown to become one of the most important LGBT temples in the country if not in the world. Just the idea of a gay synagogue at that time was groundbreaking especially since so many members of the LGBT community feel that they really have no place in religion. Many others have used the Hebrew Bible as a place from which to issue admonitions against the community and all of us are aware of the way organized religion has looked upon our community. To create a place where we can go and share how we feel both with the Supreme Being and with each other was of course a radical idea back in ’73 when the congregation organized and was considered by others to be blasphemous. Today CBST gets over 4000 people for its High Holiday services. More than that it has become an example to other groups in other cities and I am quite sure that it was the example of this new temple that encouraged other places to do the same—Am Tikva in Boston, for example, is one of those.
Author Cohen has done excellent research as she shares CBST’s journey with us. The temple evidently has protected its history by maintaining extensive archives as well as flyers, documents etc. Because the temple is relatively young, many of its congregants are still alive and make for fascinating interviews. There are personal reminiscences throughout the volume and these together with Cohen’s text provide quite a history. We tend to take so much for granted these days that sometimes we forget that for every action there are people working very hard behind the scenes. Cohen reminds us of that by writing about the people that made the congregation happen and how it struggled during the AIDS epidemic and how it came of age by hiring a rabbi to steer the people and the organization into the right direction.
One of the aspects of this book is the amount of detail included but I must say this is never a boring read even with the detail. I can best compare to bringing a child into the world and watching every aspect of that child as he moves from crawling to standing on his own two feet. It is important as I said previously to learn of the people who were instrumental in getting CBST to walk forward and take its rightful place in the American community as well as in the LGBT and Jewish communities. What we see here are the people and the happenings that really made the temple the place it has become.
When the book arrived yesterday I sat down with it and read every word—then I went back and looked at the pictures and was amazed at how many people I recognized but even more amazed at how many I did not recognize. The book is divided into three sections—“The Early Years” which I found enlightening, “Building the Sanctuary” which fed my religious curiosity and “Enlarging the Tent” which focuses on the diversity of the congregation and where it will go next. My temple this year is celebrating its 75th anniversary and we cannot match something as beautifully done as this book. Even though I have not been to CBST, I found myself grinning with pride as I read. It is one hand very personal and on the other the history of a place that has become an institution; an institution built by friends with common interests and a desire to belong. Do not ever believe that religion and sexuality cannot exist side by side. This book shows us the proof of what can happen when they come together.