Gay Synagogues’ Uncertain Future

New York’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah made news recently when it announced the purchase of a three-level space in a landmark tower on the west side of Manhattan. When construction is complete, the building in the Garment District will house CBST’s first permanent home in its 40-year history.

“We’ve been in a rental space that’s hard to find and reflects what the community was in the ’70s,” said Sharon Kleinbaum, senior rabbi at CBST—the country’s largest LGBT-founded synagogue, with over 1,100 adult members, up from about 650 just five years ago. “Now it will be part of the fabric of the city, out on the street, not hidden away. Without an address, it’s hard to be a firm presence, and that’s what we want to become. We want to say that we are a vibrant part of the life of New York City and the world.”

Across the country in Los Angeles, Beth Chayim Chadashim, the country’s oldest LGBT synagogue, recently reached a similar milestone, having moved into its own new building last year and celebrating its 40th anniversary this past June.

LGBT congregations have finally come into their own, providing a home for the Jewish community’s LGBT members and their friends and families in cities both large and small. But the increasing acceptance around gay issues in mainstream synagogues, from Reconstructionist to Reform to Conservative, and even on the fringes of Modern Orthodoxy, means that these synagogues are no longer the only option for LGBT Jews. So, the lines that once seemed so clear have begun to blur: LGBT synagogues in places like Cleveland and Atlanta are merging or outgrowing their original designation and drawing a more diverse membership, even as mainstream congregations sign up new gay members and become more diverse.

According to Jay Michaelson, founder of Nehirim, an organization dedicated to LGBT spirituality, “There are some people for whom living their Jewish identity is linked to their queer identity, but for others, 2013 isn’t 1983. Most synagogues, outside of the Orthodox world, are welcoming, or at least won’t slam the door in their faces. The LGBT synagogues that used to be the default option for gay people no longer are.”

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