Twenty Years On, the Real and Radical Legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach
JNS.org – “He was part hippie, part yippie, part beatnik, and part New Age,” wrote Elli Wohlgelernter in a Jerusalem Post eulogy in 1994, following the Oct. 20 passing of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
Twenty years later, more robust accounts of Carlebach’s life have come to the surface. Earlier this year, Natan Ophir published the book Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission & Legacy. This past summer, Rabbi Shlomo Katz’s The Soul of Jerusalem hit the shelves.
But even the authors will admit that this larger-than-life, soul-hugging rabbi’s legacy cannot be fully captured in black-and-white pages.
“Shlomo did not seem to fit any restrictive, defining label,” Ophir told JNS.org. “Reb Shlomo was… a charismatic teacher who combined storytelling, sermonic exegesis, and inspirational insights into creating a new form of heartfelt, soulful Judaism filled with a love for all human beings.”
Carlebach immigrated to New York from Lithuania in March 1939, just six months before the Nazis invaded. In 1945, the family moved to Manhattan so his father, Rabbi Naphtali Carlebach, could take over Congregation Kehilath Jacob on W. 79th Street. After his father’s passing, Carlebach assumed leadership of the synagogue, today known as “The Carlebach Shul.”
It was from his home base at The Carlebach Shul that Shlomo Carlebach set up the first known Hassidic outreach program, Taste and See God is Good (T.S.G.G.). According to Ophir, the organization was based on the idea that, as Carlebach said, “You cannot begin to talk to people about God unless you have first given them a taste of God is good.”
In 1968, Carlebach established the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco, the first Jewish commune.
“His empathetic approach toward the spiritual imports from the Far East was radical for an Orthodox rabbi,” said Ophir.
Everything Carlebach did was radical. He traveled to Germany in the 1960s to teach people whose parents had murdered scores of Jewish people that the time for peace and forgiveness had come, recalled Ben-Zion Solomon, whose home is next door to the late Carlebach’s in the central Israeli community of Moshav Mevo Modi’in, also known as the “Carlebach moshav.”
Carlebach was a scholar in his own right, studying at some of the most renowned American yeshivot. He later connected with the Lubavitch movement, whose leader at the time, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, encouraged him to go into outreach. This mandate was the start of what became his calling, serving as the rabbi of the hippie movement.
He had followers around the globe. Many young Jews returned to a Torah lifestyle as a result of their relationship with Carlebach.
In 1963, philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, founder of Birthright Israel, set up a company called The Shabbos Express to help Shlomo channel his talents in a business-like manner. Steinhardt told Ophir, “I knew Shlomo quite well and I was perfectly prepared to accept his eccentricities. … Shlomo, however, continued to travel the globe in altruistic style in disregard of conventional time and business.”
Daughter Dari Carlebach said in a previous interview that her father was caught between two worlds—the religious/yeshiva world and the hippie world. She said her father had a huge desire “to love and heal the world,” and he did it with “such heart and grace and empathy.”
Shlomo Carlebach’s unbridled passion might account for why it has taken this long to begin to canonize his legacy. Solomon recounts the way that his rebbe could focus on whoever needed him at the time, that “whoever he was talking to, he became their best friend.”
Solomon and wife Dina met Carlebach in California. Carlebach encouraged Solomon to learn in Israel and eventually to make aliyah, and then handpicked his family to live on the Carlebach moshav.
Solomon recalled that when he arrived in Israel he was told by the Orthodox-affiliated Diaspora Yeshiva that his wedding to Dina was not valid, as they did not have a ketubah (Jewish marriage contract). He called Carlebach in a panic. The rabbi told him to get some wine and cake and meet him at the Shabbos House in Jerusalem at 1 a.m.
“We’re waiting for Shlomo and then we see him coming down the block with 300 people. …We were singing and dancing until daylight,” Solomon told JNS.org.
Carlebach is best known for his Jewish music. “He’s universally accepted as the father of Jewish music,” said Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman of Mevo Modi’in.
Leslie Pomerantz and Michael Hoffman are both Jewish song leaders. Pomerantz told JNS.org that Carlebach made Jewish music “accessible” and taught song leaders the value of using music for engagement.
“For him, it was not a performance, but an inclusive process,” Pomerantz said.
Hoffman said he was raised at Jewish summer camp, and when he became a song leader he envisioned Carlebach to be another Debbie Friedman, whose music had a significant influence on the liturgies of Reform and Conservative Judaism. He recalled that when saw a picture of the late rabbi, “I was like, ‘Wow!'”
Hoffman described Carlebach’s music as “timeless” and noted how people have forgotten that many immensely popular niggunim (tunes or melodies) were in fact composed by Carlebach. For example, it was Carlebach who in 1965 invented Am Yisrael Chai for the Student Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry movement, which was later adopted for Jewish causes as a theme of resilience and perseverance. Other famed Carlebach compositions include David Melech Yisrael, Od Yeshoma, and Esa Einai.
Recent books work to shed light on Carlebach’s Torah teachings, which followers say were the basis for his tunes.
“It wasn’t music for music’s sake. It was a part of a bigger Torah vision he wanted to share with the world,” said Trugman.
Author Shlomo Katz told JNS.org he first connected with Carlebach’s teachings at the age of 14 when a classmate shared his headphones during recess.
“I put on the earphones and I was transported instantly,” Katz recalled regarding the music and teaching he heard. “I knew my whole world was about to change because my neshama (soul) was more alive than ever at that moment—and it never stopped.”
Katz has devoted his professional life to collecting, transcribing, and teaching Carlebach’s Torah teachings, which can be found on tens of thousands of tapes and in hundreds of journals across the world.
Solomon said he used to learn Talmud with Carlebach every morning at 5 a.m.
“He said things a gaon (genius) would say,” said Solomon. “Those special mornings taught me a whole other aspect of learning Torah.”
But Carlebach’s legacy is not without controversy. He faced allegations that became public in a 1998 Lilith magazine article, claiming he routinely made sexually suggestive late-night phone calls to female acquaintances and that he physically molested numerous women over the course of decades. Such accusations naturally provoked fierce controversy about how to remember a man many considered a saint.
“Can you imagine, in a period of a month, after one of his yahrzeits (anniversary of death), getting 50 phone calls about the same person from all over the world? He has victims in Israel, the U.S., Australia, South Africa—any place he went, he had victims,” said Vicki Polin of the Awareness Center, a non-profit with the mission of ending sexual violence in the Jewish community. “He did a lot of kiruv (outreach), but what about those who converted to other faiths—walked away completely—because of this assault?”
Carlebach’s followers have rejected those allegations. And this generation, said Katz, is hungrier than ever for his message.
“Today’s youth won’t compromise for anything less than something that touches the depths of their own souls, which is really what [Carlebach] does through his teachings—so mind-blowing and deep, but in the same instance… he puts the sweet inside, so it goes down in a way that resonates,” Katz said.
Nechama Silver recalled meeting Carlebach in the 1970s at a coffee shop concert in Pennsylvania. She said he “turned me on to yiddishkeit (Jewishness).”
“I remember saying, ‘Is this guy for real?'” she said. “He is the realest thing you will ever meet.”