When King Pekah ruled the northern kingdom of Israel, the Assyrians invaded, occupied its cities and took its people “captive to Assyria.” (2 Kings 15:29.) Adding insult to grievous injury, the Assyrians later demanded of Hezekiah, ruler of the southern kingdom of Judah, a payment so large that he had to “cut off the gold from the doors” and doorposts of the first temple in Jerusalem. (2 Kings 18:16.)
Put another way: Assyrians were no friends of the Jews. They are not, therefore, the likeliest of people to be ornamenting a synagogue.
Then again, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah is not the likeliest of synagogues.
Founded in 1973 under the name Beth Simchat Torah, it is known familiarly as the “gay synagogue,” though it ministers more broadly to “gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender, queer and straight individuals and families who share common values.” After 40 years of wandering (sound familiar?), the congregation hopes to settle into its first permanent home in 2013. It is currently quartered in the Westbeth complex in the West Village.
On June 23, the congregation purchased two large, adjacent storefront condominium units at 130 West 30th Street, a landmark building designed by Cass Gilbert and completed in 1929. For reasons lost to history, Gilbert used Assyrian motifs. Most prominent among them are mirror-image bas reliefs over the lobby and service entrances depicting chariot-borne hunters aiming bows and arrows at loping antelopes, with catlike creatures crouched under the horses. These panels are flanked by pairs of lion heads and forelegs. (The 2001 designation report can be read as a pdf.)
David W. Dunlap/The New York Times
Entrance at 130 West 30th Street.Within its space at the base of 130 West 30th Street, the congregation said it hoped to create “a beautiful sanctuary, with soaring 19-foot ceilings, that would easily accommodate current attendance at Friday night services and allow room for growth.” It will also build event spaces, classrooms, conference rooms and offices.
The architects are the Architecture Research Office. A $7 million capital campaign is under way to finance the interior reconstruction. It is being led by William J. Hibsher, a partner in the law firm of Bryan Cave and a member of the congregation who has been at the forefront of the search for new space for more than 15 years. The acquisition cost of $7.1 million was met through contributions.
“I’m still pinching myself,” said Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, the senior rabbi of Beit Simchat Torah, who can remember without prompting the days in the early 1990s when she performed more funerals than any other life cycle ceremony. Today, she’s much busier performing weddings; a happy responsibility that seems bound only to increase.
And she appreciates the neo-Assyrian figures.