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How A LGBT Congregation Rethought The Synagogue

From its transparent facade to gender-neutral bathrooms, the building's design embodies a New York congregation's progressive ethos.

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Religion is rooted in tradition, and so too is religious architecture. Yet today, architects are experimenting with what it means to build a contemporary space for worship. For Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, or CBST, planning a new synagogue in Manhattan meant reinterpreting Judaism for its diverse group of members—and engaging with the city around it.

"In the Talmud, there’s only one element that’s said to be required for a synagogue space and that’s a window, because you shouldn’t ever think that religion is separate from the world outside," says Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, who has been the progressive congregation's spiritual leader since 1992. Kleinbaum worked closely with Architecture Research Office (ARO) on the design of a new space, which finally opened last month in the Garment District after nine years of planning.

Founded in 1973 by 12 gay Jewish men, CBST has earned a reputation for welcoming all people regardless of faith (it's a nondenominational Jewish synagogue) as well as its focus on social justice initiatives, including LGBTQ rights, AIDS activism, and peace in the Middle East. It has about 800 active members, though its services during the High Holy Days swell to include more than 4,000 people.

Over time, CBST outgrew the West Village space it had occupied for nearly 40 years, and Kleinbaum wanted a new space that could accommodate more people and serve as a symbol of what the congregation was about. "I always say the Bethune Street location is like a lesbian bar in the 1970s," she says. "You have no idea where it is, you have to follow very special instructions just to find it, and when you get there you can’t see the outside world and the outside world can’t see you."

Working with ARO to find a new site, Kleinbaum and CBST chose a landmarked building designed by Cass Gilbert in 1928. Originally built for a fur merchant and converted into lofts, the 20-story building features an ornate terra-cotta facade embedded with murals of Assyrian mythology. What sold Kleinbaum on the space was its tall ceilings and 50 feet of storefront with large expanses of glass—a symbolic architectural feature that lessens the divide between the congregation and the city.

"This is such a profound moment in not just the life of our community, CBST, and not just the LGBTQ community and Jewish communities in New York. This is a profound moment in the life of New York City history and culture, and frankly the larger American progressive Jewish and religious movements," Kleinbaum says. "And I say this in the midst of this American presidential season in which, once again, the radical right wing is using gay people as bait, as targets, as an expression of what's wrong with America. . . . We at CBST are opening up a building on the street with windows."

While ARO could barely touch the facade—it managed to get the landmarks commission to approve a minimal awning to be added above the entrance—it was able to recast the interior as much as budget allowed. Visitors step into a 16-foot-tall atrium adorned with a tall pane of purple glass. While it serves as a formal entry space, it was also designed to be multipurpose and can serve as an events area. Much of the building hews to this philosophy of dual use, a necessity due to the spatial constraints in the 17,000-square-foot space.

After proceeding through the entry, people are ushered to the sanctuary, a space where services are held. "It was clear that the urban synagogue should have a really strong physical and visual connection with the city, and at the same time feel like a true sanctuary where you’re insulated from the intensity of the city and can really focus inwardly on religion," says Stephen Cassell, a principal at ARO. "That dialectic between the two is what really made the design."

The space was originally closed off from the outside, so ARO reconfigured the rear wall to extend out at an angle, which didn't alter the room's footprint—a permitting restriction—but allowed them to build a clerestory window that let in natural light and also brought the sanctuary in dialog with the city outside. The architects clad the wall with ridged concrete panels that offer acoustic insulation and visual embellishment. Mounted on the wall is a custom parochet—a ceremonial cloth—woven by an art collective in Columbia using gold-plated brass, aluminum, and natural fibers. Further speaking to traditional elements of Jewish culture, ARO discovered a group of Polish artists that travels around their country making molds of niches where mezuzahs—a totem hung in doorways—were once embedded. Casts made from those molds are installed near the doorways throughout the synagogue.

When Kleinbaum hosted an architectural tour through the new synagogue, nearly every design detail made her beam with pride—such as a kosher teaching kitchen, Walt Whitman passages embedded into the staircase, and a balcony area in the sanctuary to accommodate more people. But one design element in particular is especially symbolic of the progressive congregation she leads: gender-neutral bathrooms. In order to build the restrooms, the architects needed to apply for special variance for the bathrooms from the city planning department. A snapshot of the actual document is part of the custom graphics adorning one of the bathroom's walls.

"Much of the Jewish community suffers from what we affectionately call the ‘edifice complex’—build a building, but there’s nothing inside that’s full of soul, and I really believe that this building is an extension of CBST’s soul and will be a place for us to grow in ways we can’t imagine," she says. "And I don’t mean just in terms of numbers. I mean in spiritualism and in depth for each of us."

All Photos: © Elizabeth Felicella

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