This wonderfully illustrated volume looks back on four decades at a groundbreaking New York City synagogue and its LGBTQS—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, straight—community.
Rabbi Cohen served the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah for 10 years, first as a rabbinical intern, then as rabbinic partner with Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum. In this fascinating, well-documented history, Cohen traces the development of CBST from its earliest beginnings in a 1973 Village Voice ad: “Gay Synagogue, Friday Night Service and Oneg Shabbat, Feb. 9, 8:00 pm.” A dozen men showed up. Today, Yom Kippur services draw over 4,000 people. Cohen divides her book into three main sections: “The Early Years,” covering CBST’s efforts to find a home, deal with the AIDS crisis and find a rabbi; “Building the Sanctuary,” addressing how CBST came to develop liturgy, songs and traditions, including its own Torahs; and “Enlarging the Tent,” describing CBST’s continuing embrace of diversity among its members and its plans for the future. The many personal glimpses of CBST members scattered throughout this account add much interest, poignancy and humor. Several early members mention how freeing it was to avoid the prying questions during oneg (a useful glossary is appended for gentiles), the social/cultural hour after services in which members might be asked, for instance, if they were getting married. A heartbreaking number—nearly half the original male members—of in memoriam notices are reproduced for AIDS-related deaths, but, in a heartening statistic, baby-naming ceremonies “far outpaced AIDS funerals” by the early 2000s. Cohen is honest about the disagreements that were part of CBST’s growth, such as inclusion of women, and how the organization is still changing—for example, the basic issue of confidentiality, so important to early members, has altered with time: “It wasn’t until the 2000s that mail from CBST began to bear the synagogue’s name on the envelope, a change that some members found startling even then.” But what comes through most strongly is the congregation’s feeling that at CBST they’ve found a home—an inclusive, welcoming home that takes its spiritual and social responsibilities seriously, with a side of joy and song.
Well-written, valuable history of a unique synagogue at the crux of social change.