The Legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach
On June 16, I will be honored by the famed Carlebach shul – but the real tribute is due to the famed Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, a great Rabbi who “knew that in order to reach people it was not enough to tell them about Judaism. In an atmosphere of warmth and joy, he dedicated himself to bringing the experience of Torah to Jews of all ages and affiliations.” His Upper West Side synagogue was – and is – the epi-center of the Carlebach movement.
Whoever thinks shul is boring has never sang Carlebach-style – there, prayer truly touches ones’ soul – it is deep and meaningful and meditative. It’s fun and enjoyable. Singing Judaism, fun Judaism, the experience of the Carlebach shul is one that everyone must see.
Rabbi Carlebach famously said that when the Jewish people lost the Holy Temple, we lost the music that was played in the Holy Temple, which included thousands of instruments and voices. Approaching the Holy Temple was said to be the most awesome experience; between the smell of the incense and the sound of the music, it was beyond wonderful. One of the holinesses in Judaism are the melodies of the Torah and the Prophets – and as Reb Shlomo used to say “if more people could ‘sing a new song to God!’ we could really fix the whole world.”
Growing up in Rabbi Avi Weiss’ shul, I remember Reb Shlomo’s melodies from when I was very young. I knew Reb Shlomo, and hosted him a number of times during conferences and college events when I was President of Betar North America in the ’90’s. He always brought a special energy and spirit with him. I remember many discussions with him – he was a man who cared deeply about the people and land of Israel, and was a deep Zionist. He had a special ability to relate to all kinds of Jews, and do everything he could to bring them closer to Judaism.
Nearly every synagogue anywhere in the world has a “Carlebach Minyan” – a service which uses his melodies. From Am Israel Chai to so many others, his songs permeate Jewish culture, and as Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt noted, Carlebach “changed the expectations of the prayer experience from decorous and somber to uplifting and ecstatic as he captivated generations with elemental melodies and stories of miraculous human saintliness, modesty and unselfishness.”
There are so many for whom Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach – Reb Shlomo – meant so much to. Some quotes on his inspiration:
- “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” – Natan Ophir.
- “It is said that Carlebach had an ability to make everyone feel that they were his dear friend, and his main message was one of unconditional love” – Haaretz.
- “To some fans, Carlebach was the ‘Singing Rabbi,’ a folk music star who performed alongside Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. To others he was a scholar and a sage, a talmudic genius and a spiritual leader in the tradition of the early Hasidic rebbes. In certain circles he’s viewed as an architect of Orthodox outreach while elsewhere he’s a 1960s hippie who broke with Orthodoxy in favor of ecumenism and egalitarianism” – The Forward.
- “Reb Shlomo would travel all over the world fixing people’s broken hearts and souls with his music, stories, and Chassidic teachings. He [taught] the highest Kabalistic secrets in such a simple and clear way, that everyone can understand and relate to them. I am one of the millions of people who was uplifted and inspired by Reb Shlomo” – Zivi Ritchie.
- “If I were to narrow down Shlomo’s legacy to one word that would capsulize a key message of his approach to life it would be ‘Empathy’. Shlomo’s dynamo was ’empathy’, a genuine attempt at appreciating other people and bringing out their best….Everyone is Best of the Best, Holy Brother, Holy Sister, holy everyone…” – Natan Ophir.
- “[Carlebach] made it a basic expectation that you go to a prayer service to have your heart open and your spirit soar” – Jay Michaelson.
- “Carlebach made Judaism accessible to an audience that might have remained disaffected, but he never dumbed down the sincerity of his belief…. The lesson we can learn today is not to dilute our own spiritual tradition, but to communicate it authentically” – Jay Michaelson.
- “When he entered the room, it was…like magic. There was a current of love and energy that he seemed to be able to tap into. It was a real encounter with holiness” – Jay Michaelson.
- “Shlomo showed me a halakhic Judaism that made sense, like a puzzle that fits” – Leah Sands.
- “The limited texts and purposely repetitive Hasidic-style songs he wrote and sang… were the key to his outreach efforts and enabled Jewishly uneducated members of his audience to become a part of the music-making. For many, it was among their most powerful Jewish experiences….” – Marsha Bryan Edelman.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach – and the songs and spirit he created – has positively affected so many people around the world. One of my favorite songs he made – “Lord Get Me High” – can be heard here.