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Shlomo Carlebach, Beloved Rabbi and Songwriter, Dies at Age 69

October 24, 1994
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Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who touched thousands as a rabbi and songwriter, died last week of a heart attack at age 69.

Born in Germany in 1925, Carlebach came with his father, Rabbi Naftali Carlebach, to the United States in 1939. After his father died in 1967, he and his twin brother, Rabbi Eli Chaim Carlebach, took over their father’s synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Formally called Congregation Kehillat Jacob, it was universally known as the Carlebach Shul. And on Sunday, 1,500 people gathered outside the synagogue for its leader’s funeral. He was to be buried in Israel on Monday.

“Hello, brother,” or “hello, sister” and “peace” were his trademark salutations.

He recorded his songs on more than two dozen albums, songs with lyrics mostly from the traditional prayerbook and the words of the prophets.

“When we daven, we daven with Reb Shlomo’s tunes,” Rabbi Avi Weiss, the activist rabbi and longtime friend, said in a eulogy Sunday. “We think they have been around forever, but they came from Shlomo’s soul.”

This is true not only in Orthodox synagogues, but in Conservative havurot, Reform summer camps, and in Hasidic shtiebels.

And it was true inside the Soviet gulag as well.

In 1965, Glen Richter and Yaakov Birnbaum, leaders of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, asked him to compose a song for the movement.

The result was the tune, “Am Yisrael Chai” — “the Jewish people live” — which became the theme song for an entire community.

“We had our march around the United Nations with 3,000 students, and we asked Shlomo to sing the song. Within minutes, everyone was singing it,” said Richter.

SINGING STRONG UNDER KGB GLARE

“From the time his records started getting in to the Soviet Union, we would be told that this was the movement that sustained Jewish activists,” said Richter.

Carlebach traveled to Moscow in the early 1970s, singing strong as KGB agents glared. Two decades later, as Communism was fading and Judaism beginning to return, he went back.

But Carlebach was trained as a traditionally Orthodox rabbi. He studied at the Yeshiva Torah V’daath in Brooklyn and at Bais Medrash Gavoah in Lakewood, N.J., both strictly Orthodox institutions.

And in an example of the bridgebuilding he saw as his mission in life, he became a Chasid, serving for a time as an emissary of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

“If he was going to do a concert, the rebbe wanted him to do it with a mechitzah separating the women and men,” said Rabbi Micha Odenheimer, who served as an assistant to Carlebach.

“He went back to the rebbe and said, ‘I have to do it with mixed seating.’ The rebbe said, ‘OK, go do your thing.’ “

In the 1960s, at the height of the Hippie movement, with its spiritual headquarters in San Francisco and neighboring Berkeley, Carlebach founded the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco as a way to draw back young Jews who had felt alienated by Judaism and were drawn to Eastern religions made popular during the Hippie movement.

“He had a heart wide enough to give comfort to the post- Holocaust generation,” said his cousin, also named Shlomo Carlebach, in a eulogy.

Carlebach, who did not grow up in a Chasidic milieu but came to it later, embraced the earliest visions of Chasidism with their call to serve God and reach other Jews through joy.

The joy was contagious — whether in one of the many concerts he held in cities around the world each year, or whether during services in the simple synagogue that only last year received a badly needed paint job.

When he would lead worship, the wordless tunes before prayers would merge with the prayers. As the melody grew more lively and frenetic, he and his Chasidim would be dancing up and down, clapping their hands.

Rabbi Chaskel Besser, who oversees Jewish projects in Poland for the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and is himself strictly Orthodox, sent Carlebach, a close lifetime friend, to Poland, where Carlebach appeared all over the country.

HAD ‘A COLOSSAL IMPACT’

“The people just went wild about him,” said Besser. “I had sent him to excite the Jewish ‘lost souls’ in Poland.

“When I came to Poland after his visit, two or three weeks later, I was stupefied. I was astounded to see what a colossal impact he had,” Besser said. “Not only on the Jews, but on the non-Jews. I hardly could imagine that Polish Christians would be interested to listen to Shlomo’s songs or speeches, which always accompanied his songs.”

Carlebach had residences in Manhattan, Toronto — where he had a wife and two daughters — and in Israel on Moshav Me’or Modi’in, which he founded. His twin brother, Eli Chaim, died about four years ago.

Like the great blues musicians who died penniless, Carlebach received barely any money from his songs; at his funeral, contributions were sought to pay for burial expenses.

While his songs were recorded by dozens of other musicians, he received little credit and fewer royalties.

“If I would say I’m not bitter, I would be lying,” Carlebach said in an interview that aired last month on Zev Brenner’s “Talkline.”

In that same interview, Carlebach also had harsh words for those he felt should have been out there helping him — federation officials who would not help support Jewish education, or Orthodox yeshiva leaders who were slow to realize the need to reach out to the unaffiliated.

“He was so prescient about what was needed in the Jewish community,” said Richter. “He would go from community to community and speak of the need for outreach and education for young Jews, and the Jewish establishment people would look at him like a freak.”

But Carlebach was not about bitterness.

Most of all, he was about love.

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