Faith & Form, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, 2017

Faith & Form

“A Synagogue as ‘Extension of the Soul'”
Volume 50, Issue 2
Stephen Cassell

The lobby is expansive, with colored light, and elegant details such as yarmulke storage as one approaches entry to the sanctuary.

In the spring of 2007, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), the world’s largest LGBTQ+ synagogue, received an offer from a developer to root its new home in the base of one of New York’s residential towers. When my firm, Architecture Research Office, interviewed for the job we were excited about the project. At the end of the interview we learned that Rabbi Kleinbaum, CBST’s activist spiritual leader, already had a close, personal relationship with one of our buildings. To protest “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” her backdrop of choice was the Armed Forces Recruiting Station in Times Square, which we had designed in 1998. (The evidence remains on YouTube.) Predictably, just as CBST selected us to design the space, that real estate deal promptly fell through. Thus began our nine-year journey through a shifting landscape of gay rights to create a permanent home for CBST.

With its main space of worship in a church on 9th Avenue and 29th Street, separate from its offices and chapel in Westbeth Artists Housing on Bethune Street, CBST had operated in a divided landscape almost since its founding in 1973. The geographic partition had affected the community, undermining the congregation’s social bonds, as members attending services in the church were disconnected from the synagogue’s day-to-day work. While the space in Westbeth, which CBST had occupied since 1976, gave it a fixed address, it was difficult to find because the entrance was out of the way, only accessible through a courtyard at the end of a ramp, and difficult to find. That disjoined configuration made the synagogue feel hidden – ‘closeted’ like a 1970s lesbian bar, as Rabbi Kleinbaum often said.

CBST’s history and mission made it imperative that the architecture of its new home reflect the synagogue and congregation—a proud, radically traditional and inclusive group, an institution at the forefront of gay rights advocacy, unaffiliated with one particular Judaic movement. With the pressure off to start the design, we used the opportunity to embark on a three-month programming study. After interviewing more than 100 congregants, as well as individuals and professors outside of the community, we were able to develop a sense of CBST’s programmatic needs, an intellectual framework for the project, and an understanding of what the costs of such a project would be. The programming study also made CBST’s goals for the new space clear: the Rabbi and her congregants were determined to create a strong presence in the city, they hoped to establish a true sanctuary from the city (as a synagogue and an LGBTQ+ organization concerned about security), and they wanted to emphasize their inclusivity.

The sanctuary offers an intimate setting for a number of functions.

The programming study also helped us realize the ways in which CBST was distinct from a typical synagogue. One major difference was in its congregants’ diversity: socioeconomically, religiously in terms of Judaic movements represented, and geographically, with members from across the tri-state area. In addition, CBST was a congregation trying to accommodate for future growth and evolution as LBGT families with children were becoming an integral part of the synagogue and early members were aging. In planning terms, the study confirmed our thought that each space in CBST’s new home would have to serve multiple functions. It also emphasized the need for lecture space for social justice work and a wedding hall. (This was in 2007, several years before same sex marriage was recognized as legal by New York in 2011).

By the start of the design development process, we knew that three core elements would focus the design of CBST’s new home: worship, community / outreach, and learning. All synagogues emphasize community and learning, yet these qualities were especially important for CBST, where the shul provides a haven for gay Jews. To keep us on track and the congregation informed, CBST formed a building committee to work with us. Led by Aari Ludvigsen, an architect, the committee cemented the close collaboration with us and also with Rabbi Kleinbaum. Together, we frequently met with the congregation to present and receive feedback openly as we strived to realize a vision for a synagogue designed with the flexibility to accommodate a variety of activities and occasions, and with individual elements that would also hide the existing building structure, pipes, and electric lines. In retrospect, watching the building committee work so hard to make sure that the design was as inclusive and “of” CBST as possible was wonderful. So many special, expressive details, both large and small, would not otherwise have existed: the quotes from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” (which is in their siddur, prayer book) in the terrazzo and elevator; the signage outside the non-gendered restroom asking all members to respect the gender expression of their fellow members; the wall celebrating every congregant’s donation to the building fund, regardless of amount; the hearing loop in the sanctuary for the hearing impaired…and so many more.

After chasing the real estate market and studying more than 40 sites, in January 2011 we finally found our space at 130 West 30th Street: a storefront at the base of a landmarked, Cass-Gilbert-designed building dating to 1928. Built as a warehouse, clad in terra-cotta reliefs with Assyrian-inspired motifs, and with a more recent past devoted to the fur industry, the 18-story structure in the heart of midtown Manhattan had been converted into condos in the early 2000s. Embedded in the historic façade with its winged guardians, horse-drawn chariots, and lions, our storefront boasted high ceilings, a mezzanine, and a tall basement—and, importantly, was adjacent to a police station. After existing in a split configuration between windowless offices and a small chapel in Westbeth with Shabbat services in a church twenty blocks away, the congregation now had its first permanent home: a headquarters, home base, and physical face for the active institution.

We envisioned the façade—ultimately a composition of lit signage, vertical gold pinstripes, and lavender glass—as an embodiment of CBST’s radical traditionalism, mediating the historic designation of the landmark building and presenting a modern and active institution.  Set back 18 inches from the façade, the lighted element satisfies landmarks guidelines, as do the gold pinstripes, which refer to the original gold leaf storefront signage. Yet they are also undeniably for CBST, the gay synagogue. The lavender pane of glass was a critical part of our solution to clearly identify CBST. We considered traditional blue, but decided to test magenta, a reference to the pink triangle forced on prisoners to identify gay men in Nazi concentration camps and later reclaimed by AIDS activists in the ‘80s. After long discussions and several options, we opted for the lavender, which is imbued with the significance of the past and celebrates the present. Now—announced in large glowing letters, with gold vertical divisions across 50 feet of glass lined with blast-proof film, a 16-foot-tall lavender pane, four visible hanging rainbow flags, and brass door-handles, designed by artist and architect Mark Robbins—Congregation Beit Simchat Torah is hard to miss, a storefront for an urban synagogue that welcomes all in.

The promising qualities and clear limitations of the interior space were typical of a New York project and apparent early on, particularly the challenge of how to fit a sanctuary within the existing column grid. It was clear that using the existing building layout and capping the occupancy of the sanctuary at 299 would be cost effective, as structural changes and building code requirements for 300 or more were too costly to pursue. Part of the design process was constantly trying to figure out seemingly effortless solutions to these and similar limitations.

The lobby features four gay pride flags created especially for CBST by the late Gilbert Baker, the artist and activist who designed the iconic flag. To the right is the administrative staff; above them, the rabbinical suites. (This configuration establishes the visual connection absent from the Westbeth location.) The sanctuary, the spiritual heart of CBST, occupies the far end of the lobby rather than opening off the entrance, as at other Manhattan synagogues. This placement separates the sacred space from the city space, enhancing its sanctity and encouraging social engagement in the area between the two. To reach it, congregants pass the offices, a kippot (yarmulke) holder, and enter with another set of custom, carved brass door handles that remind yet again, in Hebrew, that, “It is good to give thanks.” Mounted over the sanctuary door is the brass plaque with the Ten Commandments from CBST’s previous home: a pair of male and a pair of female lions of Judah flank the tablets, in gender equality. A vestibule set with a constellation of lights, the back of the Memorial Wall, draws congregants into a luminous sanctuary.

The sanctuary wall, a mass of fluted concrete, anchors the synagogue. Canted at a 10-degree angle to admit natural daylight (the one design element required by the Talmud for a synagogue) through a skylight, the wall is dramatic, acoustic, and avoids adding square footage to the restricted footprint. Congregants who had spoken movingly about being able to watch the sun set through the roof of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center during CBST’s open-to-all high holiday services there, inspired our own skylight, which casts a changing play of light and shadow on the wall, naturally illuminating the sanctuary as the sun sets at the start of a Friday night service.

The design of the sanctuary wall and skylight actually emerged from a fundamental aspect of CBST’s services: music. To ensure that the new home would be even more vital in that regard, any visual solutions for the sanctuary had to follow from the acoustical imperatives. Bringing in Threshold, acoustic engineers accustomed to designing concert halls, allowed us to achieve two acoustic goals: to not disturb the residential building above, and to enrich the sound of the space. We determined the solid mass needed would be at the skylight and that concrete would be the prime focus of the sanctuary. The concrete flutes are grouped to align with Judaic numerology and thin as they angle downward to catch the light, inspiring the gold pinstripes across the façade.

Traditionally, synagogues are not as typologically consistent as other spaces of worship, with varying arrangements around an east-facing ark. An early iteration featured a shoebox-shaped sanctuary facing east – too much like a church and, for the Rabbi, untrue to CBST’s vision of itself. Alternate options led to seating that curves around the bema, an arrangement that reinforced a sense of intimacy and community among the congregation as seats were no more than 35 feet away from the center on both the main level and the balcony. We carried the formal language of gentle curves playing off of the canted wall into the lobby design and throughout the space. Whether or not to use pews was the topic of discussion for more than a year: for many they represented something too traditional. On the other hand, pews gave a stronger sense of order to the sanctuary and made it more efficient to meet the 299 capacity goal. From our perspective, the opportunity to reinterpret such a traditional element of worship would also result in efficient, custom seating that could serve flexibly for different services. Ultimately, the stackable oak pews (which allowed them to be stored so that the sanctuary could be used for wedding banquets), custom made by English furniture maker Luke Hughes, reinforce the formal order of the space. All remaining concerns evaporated once CBST opened.

The building committee requested that we integrate elements of Judaica selectively into the design of the synagogue. By custom, the sanctuary must contain two: the ark, which houses the Torahs, and the Ner Tamid, an eternal flame. It made sense to embed the ark in the concrete wall to center the space, although an awkwardly placed structural column threw the symmetry off, it was a constraint too costly to remove. With the Ner Tamid, we struggled much more with its design and placement. After exploring possible solutions through a series of studies—none of them to our liking or the building committee’s—Aari suggested that the column could represent the Tree of Life. With that, it became a natural home for the Ner Tamid. Carved into the column and coated in gold leaf, it holds the animated moving light that serves as the eternal flame, the Ner Tamid; a constraint became an opportunity to reference tradition by blending technology with modern design.

Rabbi Kleinbaum gave us a clear directive that everything in CBST’s new home needed to be “fabulous.” We took this to heart, especially in the sanctuary, where the ark became a series of layers. The exterior, sliding door of steam bent oak opens to a second door covered in fabric handwoven of natural fibers with gold and silver wire by Jorge Lazarazo and his artist collective Hechizoo. This door slides back to reveal the curtain above the Torah, the Parochet. At Aari’s suggestion, the layers of the ark would also indicate the use of the sanctuary space—from secular (closed) to religious (open)—with a Parochet inspired by traditional Jewish papercuts. We decided to translate traditional papercuts as laser-cut burgundy fabric over a sheer gold cloth (again, “fabulous”). The Rabbi encouraged inclusive design elements from different Jewish traditions, including Sephardic references, so I developed the fabric cuts from a leaf pattern motif on a frieze in a 14th Century synagogue in Toledo, Spain and fittingly spent one Martin Luther King Jr. weekend working through design iterations.

The memorial walls in the sanctuary and chapel commemorate individuals lost to AIDS and in the Holocaust, reminding CBST of its struggles, accomplishments, and underlying ideals. Bearing witness to the devastating effects of AIDS, CBST lost a large percentage of its members to the disease. An early concept for these all-important elements envisioned a translucent wall between the sanctuary and the vestibule. The sanctuary side would illuminate the names of those being honored, while the vestibule side would appear as an abstract constellation of lights. The extended design process allowed for technology to catch up to our needs: each name is lit by an individually addressable, computer-controlled LED.

A gracious stair leads from the lobby to a lower common area wrapped by classrooms, chapel / library, a small kitchen, and support spaces. There, the AIDS remembrance quilt hangs.  Like its upstairs counterpart, this lower lobby serves as an event space. Its center becomes an open, welcoming community and exhibition space, flexible enough for kiddish, a meal after Shabbat, or a cocktail party. To create a seamless transition between floors, wider steps at the foot of the social stair function as a hang-out spot. For those descending, the diagonal wall on the left of the stair emphasizes the chapel entrance.

From faith to activism, the shul embeds education into every aspect of its daily life. This emphasis on learning manifests itself in the several classrooms of the lower common area where congregants may study Jewish faith and culture, gay history and cultural identity, and CBST’s role within these frameworks. On any given day, the classrooms are filled with workshops or children.

The chapel / library blends the house of study and the house of worship even further by providing space for a significant library within a chapel. A screen wreathed in steam bent oaks frames a set of historic ark doors from a 1920s synagogue in Tremont, Bronx, carried over from CBST’s Westbeth chapel. Compared to the sanctuary, the chapel / library is a smaller-scale, more intimate, multipurpose room, envisioned to service life-cycle events like small weddings. A second memorial along the far wall honors family members of congregants with illuminated plaques. Opposite the ark, a wall of books enriches the space with a warm aesthetic and functions as an important symbolic and theological strategy to connect the texts directly with worship.

Tucked in the corner of the lower level, the restroom also embodies the core values of CBST. After many discussions with the clergy and congregation about non-gendered restrooms and how to make members in transition comfortable, the options were either to design around New York City’s Building Code or, as Rabbi Kleinbaum insisted, to acquire a variance from the Department of Buildings that would specifically allow for the shared option. The time-consuming process included an application and a letter from the Rabbi emphasizing the importance of building a “shalom bayit, a peaceful, safe, and inclusive home for all who come through our doors.” The variance was granted with a letter and the statement (unexpected from the Department of Buildings): “In consideration of the proposed synagogue for the LGBTQ community where the conventional definition of gender is no longer sufficient.” The restroom features individual stalls with full-height, soundproof doors, and full-length mirrors within, so a member is able to apply makeup and adjust clothing in private. The bright wallpaper, custom designed by Permanent Press Editions, depicts CBST’s history in a collage of images that recall moments both joyous and sad: from a photograph of the celebration when marriage equality was passed in June 2015, to a letter of an early congregant describing the effects of AIDS before the disease was identified, to the Department of Buildings’ letter itself.

The new synagogue presents a bright, welcoming face to the street.

We witnessed a changing social landscape through the nine years of the project. Same-sex marriages became legal in New York with the passage of the Marriage Equality Act (June 2011, in the middle of CBST’s Pride service). Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed in September 2011. The Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act in June 2015 (both the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s lawyer are members of the congregation). Stonewall became a national monument last June in 2016. Today, the battle over bathrooms is still a contentious issue to overcome. As a congregation, CBST has been advocating for human rights long before these historic moments. It was a privilege to work closely with the Rabbi, Aari, the building committee and the wider CBST congregation to design and build their permanent home. Together, we spent nine years focused on realizing a shared dream: a shul that would be functional and symbolic, both a spiritual center and a social hub for practicing and educating the expanding CBST community in the synagogue’s proudly held principles and beliefs. When CBST opened its new doors at 130 West 30th Street on April 3, 2016, the sense of accomplishment, welcome, and beginning was palpable. “I really believe, says Rabbi Kleinbaum, “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.” We are honored that she thinks so.