LGBT Synagogue Faces Funding Shortfall for New Home



CBST, which faces a funding shortfall, started its capital campaign in 2010. Photo: Valerie Prassl.

The planned $17 million relocation of New York’s largest LGBT synagogue, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), from the West Village to Midtown West faces a delay of its scheduled 2013 opening due to a $5.5 million fundraising shortfall. CBST plans to move from Bethune Street to 130 West 30th Street because of the community’s steady growth, from 12 members in 1973 to roughly 1,100 members in 2012. The new location is a 17,000 square-feet warehouse space in a landmark building in the Garment District, which the synagogue purchased for about $9 million in June 2011.

At this point, the congregation expects a one-year delay for the opening of the synagogue. “We have a symbolic target,” said Bruce Anderson, who became the interim Executive Director of CBST four months ago. “We purchased the space on 30th Street a year ago during gay pride,” he said referring to annual festivals held throughout June. “And we target gay pride 2013 to announce that we have raised the full amount of money, and to break ground during the same time in 2014″

If CBST hasn’t closed the funding gap by June 2013, “we would consider offering to give people their money back, unless they want to support us as we continue a slower campaign, or target a smaller space,” said Anderson.

The congregation bought this 17,000 square-feet space in the Garment District on 130 West 30th Street. Photo: Valerie Prassl.

Construction work will only start after the full $17 million is raised. “We don’t want to start the renovation, and after investing millions of dollars in the process realize that we can’t finish it,” he said.

The relocation of the congregation has been planned for over 10 years, said Anderson. “Our plan for raising the money is pretty much whenever we have it,” he said. Anderson said that the new space, which has been empty for over a year, generates additional expenses like electricity and other utility costs. The congregation has kept Vani Handbags, a purse shop, as a tenant in half of the ground floor to help defray those costs.

Anderson calls CBST a place that grew from individuals’ efforts. “CBST is an organic synagogue, a one foot in front of the other kind of place.” The congregation didn’t consider working with a professional fundraiser; instead, a group of people from the community worked together on the campaign. “There are no regrets at this point about the organizational structure of the fundraising process,” he said. “Maybe one year from now, if you call me, I would say something different.”

About two years ago, CBST launched “A Home of Our Own,” a capital campaign to raise the funds for construction. So far CBST has raised roughly $11.5 million, but donations have decreased in recent months. Bryan Bridges, a member of the congregation’s board of directors, blames the economic recession for the shortfall. “People don’t have the disposable cash that they had a few years ago. And until now, we haven’t really reached out to a larger community,” he said.

A graphic shows the vision for the entrance of CBST’s new home. Photo: Valerie Prassl.

The community now plans to reach outside the congregation to wealthy New Yorkers and philanthropists, regardless of their sexual orientation or religious beliefs, as well as to organizations. “We hope to receive additional money from people who like CBST and our social engagement and believe that a gay synagogue in New York City is an important thing,” said Anderson.

Two traditional means of generating revenues – High Holiday tickets and annual membership fees – are not a major part of CBST’s financial profile. The congregation welcomes anyone for free to its High Holiday observances, which draw up to 4,000 people to the Jacob Javits Convention Center.  Membership dues are based on a “Fair Share” policy, based on members’ ability to pay, although CBST does not require proof of income. “We ask people to be honest,” said Anderson.

By moving from a quiet street in the West Village to Chelsea, the community will find itself in a new vibrant Manhattan neighborhood. “I am really excited about the relocation. I think it will give us a great opportunity to showcase what we have to offer to the world,” says Bryan Levine, an estate-planning attorney, who has been member of the community for about five years. “I have no financial insight into the process, but I hope that CBST will be able to close the gap,” he said.

CBST was founded in 1973 by Jacob Gubbay, a gay Jew from India, who lead the first gay Passover ceremony in New York on March 30 that year at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Chelsea. The congregation rents the church to host weekly Shabbat services, due to a lack of space at their West Village headquarter.