Westbeth: Congregation Beit Simchat Torah
In July 1975, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, New York’s and the East Coast’s oldest LGBT synagogue, moved to Westbeth Artists’ Housing from the Church of the Holy Apostles, where it was established two years earlier. In 1977, the congregation moved to a larger space at Westbeth, remaining there until 2016.
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In November 1970, at Spencer Memorial Church in Brooklyn Heights, a service was held for the House of David and Jonathan, “America’s first homosexual Jewish congregation,” according to the newspaper Gay. This congregation only met for six weeks, however, as it became apparent that the “rabbi,” Herbert Katz, who turned out to have a murky past, did not align with the views of the congregants.
In 1973, a group of gay Jewish friends, inspired by the Metropolitan Community Church of New York, decided to see if there was interest in an LGBT synagogue in Manhattan. Jacob Gubbay, a gay Jewish man from India, placed a newspaper advertisement for a Shabbat service in the Village Voice. This took place at the Church of the Holy Apostles on February 9, 1973, attended by fifteen people. A closeted Orthodox man saw a later ad and attended a Passover Seder service, becoming the unofficial rabbi known as Reb Pinchas. The group obtained permission to use space in Holy Apostles’ parish house on a regular basis. The synagogue was incorporated on December 5, 1973, and officially named Congregation Beth (later Beit) Simchat Torah (“The House of Joy”). To the congregation’s knowledge, this was the first permanent LGBT synagogue on the East Coast, and only the second in the United States, after Temple Beth Chayim Chadashim, formed in Los Angeles in 1972.
Beth Simchat Torah grew to one hundred members within a year, and had an attendance of some five hundred people at High Holy Day services in 1974. It held Friday evening and holiday services at Holy Apostles until it found a permanent home in Westbeth Artists’ Housing in July 1975. In 1977, the congregation moved to a larger space — the commercial space within Westbeth’s courtyard at 57 Bethune Street, entered via a massive concrete ramp.
After forty years of wandering, the children of Israel reached the Promised Land. After only four years of wandering, our congregation has found a home.
In 1992, the congregation hired its first spiritual leader, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, who remains the senior rabbi. By 1998, the congregation was so large that its heavily attended Friday services returned to Holy Apostles, this time in the sanctuary. Westbeth remained home to the congregation until 2016 when it moved to its current space, 130 West 30th Street, which it owns. It remains the largest LGBT synagogue in the world.
- Architect or Builder: Cyrus L. W. Eidlitz
- Year Built: 1896-99
“America’s First Gay Synagogue Short-Lived,” Jewish Post & Opinion, August 27, 1971.
“Gay Synagogue” ad, Village Voice, for February 9, 1973, service.
“History,” Beth Chayim Chadashim, bit.ly/2FpJhCe.
Moshe Shokeid, A Gay Synagogue in New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).
“Our History,” Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, bit.ly/2f5NhNh.
“Rabbi Conducts Jewish Gay Service,” Gay, December 21, 1970, 1, 3.
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