Ready or not, it’s time to make your High Holiday plans. And if, like me, your Jewish identity and practice are wrapped up in your queerness, you might have some pretty specific requirements for where to celebrate. Can you be near your blood family, and also be with queer famiy? Will you really pay up for High Holiday tickets only to be lectured, bored, and smothered in patriarchal heteronormativity?
As a queer millenial woman, raised progressive and in the Conservative congregation of my small town, the process of finding my way to Jewish practice and community has been one of the greatest gifts of my 20s. Spoiler: I’m still in that process.
I moved to New York City from Los Angeles almost a year ago and began by trying out two different synagogues for the High Holidays. Both were thoughtful, creative, and inclusive in their own way. This year has been a “shul-hopping” journey, and I hope sharing what I’ve discovered can offer encouragement and resources for others looking, like me, for the glittery, enchanting, queer-friendly Jewish spaces in NYC.
What makes a synagogue or Jewish community “queer-friendly” to me? Does it have any LGBT clergy, a de-masculinized liturgy, or a room full of visibly queer and trans Jews? Does it have that ruach — call it our sparkle — that queer folks bring to every space? Are Jews of Color, Sephardi and Mizrahi traditions (if Ashkenazi traditions dominate), and mixed-faith families included in leadership and tradition? Is the space accessible; are the bathrooms gender-free? Do clergy use Torah to call for justice and freedom for all in our time? Is the synagogue collaborative, partnering with others in local activism and learning or as a member of the national Jewish Emergent Network, which funds fellowships for ‘innovative and entrepreneurial’ new rabbis? If the answers to a number of the above questions are yes, you just might be looking at a queer-friendly Jewish space.
A note about High Holidays and affordability: Jewish community has a deep interest in seeing young people engaged. I strongly recommend synagogue membership, once you’ve found your home — but don’t be afraid to chat with the staff about your financial capacity. Only some advertise it, but almost all are willing to work with your budget. (And often, membership comes with High Holiday tickets and discounts to other programming, which quickly pays for itself!)
If you’re in New York and want to try out queer-friendly services this High Holiday season, here are a few places to check out:
For the politicians & the Shabbos thots:
Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST)
Location: 130 W. 30th Street, Midtown
Almost 45 years of centering LGBTQ Jewish practice and community gives CBST dibs on the title “The Gay Synagogue.” With a history of holding New York’s Jewish community through early gay liberation activism and the AIDS epidemic, CBST holds a central role in representing NYC’s Jewish LGBT community and is a regular spot to catch NYC’s LGBT-allied politicians (like Cynthia Nixon!).
Their public practices speak loudly: I first attended CBST the evening after showing up outside NYU’s Islamic Center in the wake of the New Zealand mosque attack. CBST members meet there every Friday mid-day to offer words of support to prayer-goers.
Notably, CBST explicitly offers clerical support for “gender transition and coming out.” This past spring, they collaborated with Keshet to host “Trans Jews Are Here: A Convening,” and held a series of weekly Torah study sessions for trans and non-binary participants, followed by a study session open to all.
If simply being in a room of majority LGBT people, many over 50, charms and moves you, don’t miss out on CBST.
Regular Services: 6:30 p.m. every Friday; 10 a.m. every 2nd and 3rd Saturday (check calendar for this month’s schedule).
High Holiday Services: Pay what you will! Wow! More info and tickets here.
Hot Tip: Don’t miss the picture-perfect lighting in the all-gender bathroom. A fellow cutie assured me I’m not the only one who’s taken sultry photos there.
For the Broadway gays:
Location: 652 Lexington Ave. (at 55th St.), Midtown
As I caught Kabbalat Shabbat at Union Temple of Brooklyn last month (side note on Union – I’m a fan of their new rabbi, but have always seemed to be the youngest person in the room by a couple of decades), a lesbian couple next to me confessed they were there as fangirls of the cantor, a Central Synagogue regular. “Come to Friday night services,” one of them said. “It’s hundreds of people, a full band — people call it Broadway: The Musical.”
The next Friday night I showed up with a Broadway Gay cutie. Tearing up part way through, they whispered to me, “It’s like a Steven Schwartz musical.” Okay, so I had to ask later who that was, but if Schwartz is your jam, this might be the place for you.
Regular Services: 6 p.m. every Friday; 9:30 a.m. every Saturday
Weekday Minyan: 8 a.m. M-F
High Holiday Services: Separate member and guest/community services. For $200 you can join community services. If you have membership in a Reform temple elsewhere, you may be able to get free tickets! Follow this link. More info and RSVP here.
Hot Tip: The historic building is a copy of Budapest’s Dohany Street Synagogue, and is among the oldest standing synagogues in the country.
For the creative types:
Usually UWS, sometimes Brooklyn (migrating)
If you want to ~be here now~ Lab/Shul may be your spot. They describe themselves as “artist-driven, everybody-friendly, God-optional, pop up, experimental.”
Lab/Shul has an incredible virtual/digital presence. After the 2016 election, one of their rabbis (no longer with them) led a Monday Morning, 15-minute “resist burnout” call with meditation and wise words from organizers. They did this every Monday. For months and months and months. And at a hard time in 2017, I played the episode of the “On Being” podcast featuring Lab/Shul founder Amichai Lau-Lavie on repeat.
Here in person in NYC, their offerings are all over the map. Literally. Picture Kabbalat Shabbat sitting on the floor of House of Yes, or in a room in a mall draped with gorgeous weavings. Saturday afternoon “slow-downs” on the UWS, featuring “storahtelling,” are a sweet reclamation of Torah as an ancient oral tradition. And Yom Kippur in a decadent art deco hall in Brooklyn, with zero in-hand texts but plenty of shoes-off meditation? Yes.
Lab/Shul can sometimes feel like they’re working extra hard to access The Youth. That sounds like a drag; in truth, the services offer a type of depth and slowness I look for everywhere I go… if only they weren’t quite so pricey and well-dressed… Though – wow – a new membership program (“partnerhood”) offers big discounts for as little as 12 volunteer shifts/year!
Regular Services: What’s regular? Check out their website to follow along.
High Holiday Services: Held at Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan, details and RSVP here General tickets $95/day, with discounts available based on need or by joining their membership program. Also available: Livestream, at recommended $36/day access!
Hot Tip: Peep the clergy on social media for a taste @amichailaulavie
For the somewhere-in-between:
Location: West End Presbyterian Church, 165 West 105th St. (at Amsterdam Ave.), Upper West Side
I can’t quite put my finger on why, of all places, it’s Romemu that I finally dedicated myself to. (Yes, I’m happy to talk to you about why I believe in paying synagogue membership fees.) Maybe because it’s a little more ruach-meets-tradition than the Reform-oriented synagogues on this list; maybe it’s because, despite its normative senior leadership, Rabbinic Fellow Mira Rivera has used her platform as an informal meeting point for Jewish women of color. Or maybe it’s an association with the queer cuties I’ve prayed with there.
At Romemu, despite a summer of standing out amongst Upper West Side families and elders, I feel free to exhalt. (Don’t worry, a recent visit tells me the local rabbinical students and spiritual millennials are back in town for the season.)
I can speak to the accessibility of its summer Tuesday-evening Talmud studies, a branch of this summer’s new Romemu Yeshiva, and to the intentional kindness of its staff. This kindness flows from a deep commitment to the zen-y, spiritual Judaism Romemu practices. And this kindness has helped me find paths forward on the occasional encounter with the remnants of old-school patriarchal BS that come with the “tradition” piece of their practice.
Regular Services: 6:30 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m. Torah Study; 10 a.m. prayer Saturday
High Holiday Services: Tickets $400 per holiday ($75 for students) with discounts for guests of members.
Details and RSVP here.
Hot Tip: Come say hello to me!
For the community-organizing queers:
Kolot Chayeinu (Voices of Our Lives)
Location: 1012 8th Ave, Park Slope, Brooklyn,
Kolot Chayeinu strives to explore the type of curious, open-minded, loving, all-inclusive Judaism that, to me, is Torah. I came for their non-ticketed, pay-what-you-will High Holiday services last year; I stayed for the ratio of queer and trans, personal-is-political folks holding every role in what seems to be a truly collaborative approach. Not merely performative, these are truly good queer folks doing the work to live by their values. Swoon.
Maybe this is the only Brooklyn synagogue on the list because, IMHO, all other local synagogues fade in comparison. Wait — why haven’t I joined already? BRB off to check out their “fair share membership dues structure.”
Kolot Chayeinu is truly community-oriented: I’ve caught many a b-mitzvah that brought tears to my eyes with its earnestness and community love. Generally, services are hosted in Gethsemane Church, but in the summertime, Saturday mornings are abridged and held in Prospect Park, with a potluck lunch to follow.
Regular Services: 9 a.m. Torah Study and 10:30 a.m. Torah Service every Saturday.
High Holiday Services: Held at NAB Theater at City Tech, 285 Jay Street. Details here. RSVP here.
Tickets/RSVP appreciated but not required, and $360 holidays donation recommended for non-members, but “more if you can, less if you must.”
Hot Tip: Last year’s services were billed to me as “the free one where all the young Brooklyn Jews line up around the block like a concert to get in.” They also may be the who’s-who of Brooklyn’s Jewish activists, but don’t ask me, I’m just a “who?”
Header image: Members of the Jewish community join Gay Pride Day in New York City, June 1982. The sign reads ‘Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, New York’s Gay Synagogue.’ (Photo by Barbara Alper/Getty Images)