Today, October 20, 2014, is the 20th anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the troubadour of Jewish music who took his songs and message of love to every corner of the Jewish community, and far beyond.
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Because of his unorthodox (in several senses of the word) approach to life, and to Judaism specifically, Carlebach, during his life, was claimed as “one of us” by people from every branch and sub-branch of Jewish religious life, and from every segment of the political spectrum.
He had an egalitarian approach to Judaism, and was the only male rabbi present in 1989, the first time the Women of the Wall had a Torah service at the Kotel. But after his death, with the publication of revelations by now-grown women that they had been sexually molested by him many years earlier, in several cases when they were underage, his reputation gained a dark aspect.
Carlebach was born on January 14, 1925 in Berlin. His father, Rabbi Hartwig Naftali Carlebach, descendant of a long line of rabbis, was the longtime leader of Berlin’s Passauerstrasse Synagogue. His mother, the former Paula Cohn, was the daughter of a chief rabbi of Basel, Switzerland. Shlomo had a twin brother, Rabbi Eli Chaim Carlebach, and a sister.
The family left Europe for the United States in 1933. Before their departure, Shlomo studied briefly at the Ponovezh Yeshiva in Lithuania. Once in New York, he attended several yeshivot in Brooklyn before enrolling at the prestigious Beth Midrash Gevoha in Lakewood, New Jersey.
In 1949, Carlebach became a follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, and, after the rebbe’s death in 1950, of his successor, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
According to biographer Nathan Ophir, Carlebach first picked up a guitar in 1954, when he was working as an adviser to an Off Broadway performance of “The Dybbuk.” He took guitar lessons (though he never learned to read music), and began performing and teaching in a variety of venues, including in Greenwich Village, where he appeared with Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, among others. In 1958-59, working as a youth director at a St. Louis synagogue, he and his followers chose the songs that he recorded for his first album, “Songs of My Soul.”
An appearance at a folk festival in Berkeley, California in 1966 led to a decision to settle in San Francisco where, in 1967, Carlebach opened the House of Love and Prayer, an outreach center for counter-culture types. His New York Times obituary quoted him as saying, “If I would have called it Temple Israel, nobody would have come.”
For the rest of his life, Carlebach was always traveling. In New York, he and his brother took over spiritual leadership of their father’s small Upper West Side synagogue, Kehilath Jacob, now called the Carlebach Synagogue. In Mevo Modi’in, not far from Tel Aviv, he helped establish a moshav. And after he married Elaine Neila Glick in 1972, they and their two daughters lived in New York, and after 1978 in Toronto. All the while he was in motion, performing around the world, sometimes on behalf of the campaign to free Soviet Jewry, sometimes for Israeli soldiers, and sometimes for non-Jewish audiences.
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. In this he was not acting as a rabbi, and he never presented himself as a moral exemplar for his disciples. Still, some were appalled, if not surprised, when, after his death, accusations began to emerge – most prominently in a lengthy, well-documented article in Lilith magazine in 1998 – about his sexual molestation of young Jewish women, including girls of 12 and 14.
Carlebach died of a heart attack on October 20, 1994, on an airplane about to take off from New York to Toronto. He is buried in Jerusalem.