June 28, 2011
Two friends recently invited me to attend a Shabbat service at their synagogue Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST). CBST worships in at least two different locations in New York City, but their main Shabbat service takes place inside the same Episcopal Church where they first began gathering in 1973, in the Church of the Holy Apostles.
In short, the service was stunningly beautiful. Coming off a particularly hectic workweek, I found myself deeply moved by Rabbi Kleinbaum’s prayer that we fully welcome the joys of the Sabbath into our lives. While there, I also observed two things which I hope will be of interest of ECF Vital Practices readers. The first has to do with Holy Apostles' use of space while the second touches on CBST's slow & steady work of finding a permanent place to worship.
Fire and Re-creation
Both in NYC and beyond, Holy Apostles is well-known for its ministry of hospitality, a ministry which has included an emergency food Soup Kitchen since 1982. Less well-known, however, is the fact that a disastrous fire in 1990 ultimately led to the Soup Kitchen’s expansion. From their history - “Despite the devastation of the fire, one thing could not be forgotten - there were hundreds who depended on Holy Apostles for what was their only meal of the day. The very next day following the fire, the usual line of men and women formed outside the Soup Kitchen. Without electricity, a small army of volunteers provided food for all of the 943 people who came...”
The restoration of Holy Apostles was more of a re-creation: the congregation chose to NOT reinstall their pews in favor of tough flooring and movable furniture instead, thus allowing the sanctuary to become a dining hall for Soup Kitchen guests every day of the week. Today Holy Apostles serves as the largest emergency feeding program in NYC serving over 1,200 meals every weekday.
A Space Where All Are Welcome
But choosing to create a versatile space also allowed for Holy Apostle’s ministry of hospitality to grow in other ways. This was immediately apparent a few Fridays ago when I walked through the doors of the church and saw how the sanctuary had been quickly and seamlessly transformed into a synagogue.
Much like the Soup Kitchen, the story of CBST is deeply moving. While today it is known as the LGBT synagogue of New York, CBST began in 1973 when its founder, Jacob Gubbay, noticed a flier for a gay Passover Seder to be held inside Holy Apostles. The history of CBST notes that “Gubbay volunteered to lead the Seder, and that night - retelling the story of liberation from Egyptian slavery - the idea of a gay synagogue was born.” 38 years later CBST continues to gather for their Shabbat services at Holy Apostles.
While in attendance, I was intensely conscious of the fact that I was sitting inside Holy Ground. The walls of Holy Apostles have seen so much - countless meals as well as the birth of at least two communities of faith.
Incidentally, I happened to attend the very same night CBST was closing on a new, permanent location elsewhere in Manhattan. To paraphrase the President of CBST, a layperson, “Thank God, even as we gather tonight our lawyers - two of whom are members of this congregation - are busy hammering out the purchase of our new, permanent home.”
What followed should give heart to any vestry member. The President then called the individual who has chaired CBST’s Premises Trust Fund Committee since 1983 to thank him for his dedication and labor. The President noted that this kind of work is hardly glamorous and is rarely appreciated, yet it is what has allowed CBST to fulfill their longtime dream of finding a permanent home.
Having just attended my first Shabbat service at CBST, I must admit that hearing they were heading to their own space was bittersweet. I hope some aspect of their remarkable relationship to Holy Apostles is preserved. On the other hand, I'm sure that this Episcopal Church will continue to find ways to creatively use this flexible space and I'm excited to see what comes next.
To close this long post off, I'll share the wonderful prayer which was said at the lighting of the Shabbat candles:
May the one who makes light for a blessing be blessed.
May the one who creates every moment be blessed.
May the one who sustains us forever be blessed.
May the one who surrounds and protects us be blessed.
May the one who caresses and fills us be blessed.
- Danny Maseng