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10 Years After Carlebach’s Death, Spiritual Leader’s Legacy Lives on

November 5, 2004
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Yaacov Weintraub was a teenager in the 1980s when he met Shlomo Carlebach at a weekend retreat. Like many others, Weintraub was drawn to the singing, guitar-playing rabbi who called himself just “Shlomo.” He became a devotee.

“He said, ‘Take my card,’ ” Weintraub recalls. Weintraub took the slip of paper, and a decade and a half later he’s still holding onto it.

He’s hanging onto some of Carlebach’s spiritual fervor as well.

With a foot-long ponytail hanging down his back and a Rastafarian-inspired kipah on his head, Weintraub sang, clapped his hands and thumped on the tables with some 85 attendees at the First International Carlebach Conference, which took place in New York City on Oct. 28-31.

The forum was held in honor of Carlebach’s 10th yarzheit, or anniversary of his death, which was Sunday.

True to Carlebach’s most significant legacy — his music — attendees danced to joyful niggunim, or tunes, and shook tambourines and maracas.

But while Carlebach is most known for his music, in the decade since his death a legion of healers, meditators, activists and artists have relied on Carlebach’s philosophy of open-minded, inclusive spirituality to continue their leader’s legacy.

“In broad words, it’s an ode to Shlomo,” said Hadassah Carlebach, the late rabbi’s sister-in-law. “Everybody feels they own a piece of Shlomo, yet we have to give it back to him somehow.”

Carlebach’s greatest legacy, his followers say, was that he taught Chasidic lessons to a broad spectrum of Jews in an inclusive and open-minded way through concerts and retreats.

Their activism is also a matter of making sure Carlebach’s legacy continues, since no spiritual leader has taken his place since his death.

“For me the question is, now that he is no longer alive, there are only so many times you can tell his stories without saying, ‘Well, how do we go forward in this new situation?’ ” said Naftali Citron, Carlebach’s great-nephew and the rabbi of the Carlebach Shul in New York City.

“We love Shlomo, but his name is best served by not just stopping at what he did but continuing with his inspiration and doing more,” Citron said.

Carlebach was born in 1925 in Berlin. His family later fled Nazi Germany, eventually landing in New York. There his father became rabbi of the Upper West Side’s Congregation Kehilath Jacob, now the Carlebach Shul.

Carlebach was educated in the Chasidic tradition. As one of the first emissaries of the Lubavitch movement on college campuses — along with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, leader of the Jewish Renewal movement — Carlebach turned many Jews on to Chasidic spirituality.

Breaking away in the 1950s over his more progressive attitudes toward women’s role in spiritual life and over Judaism’s laws that prevent men and women from touching each other outside of marriage, Carlebach founded the House of Love and Prayer in the San Francisco area and a moshav in Israel called Me’or Modi’im. He then returned to his father’s synagogue in New York, which he made into the headquarters for his unique approach to Judaism.

Accusations of impropriety with female followers decades ago have cast a shadow on Carlebach’s name in recent years, but for loyal followers, the rabbi who insisted on being called by his first name, who stood in the back of the synagogue and who called congregants brother and sister, remains a heroic figure.

In the decade since Carlebach’s death, the movement has adapted to not having a leader who connected the dots among his disparate followers by sheer force of charisma, Citron said

But to survive, Citron said, the movement will have to organize Carlebach’s followers.

“It’s by and large a grass-roots movement, but, yeah, we are trying to create” a more formal organization “for people in this kind of movement to come together and have organizational support if they need it,” Citron said.

Rabbi Sholom Brodt, for example, came to New York from Israel carrying news of Yeshivat Simchat Shlomo, a new school inspired by Carlebach’s teaching.

“He emphasized in teaching how to relate to people, how to live your Judaism not with your head but also with your heart,” Brodt said. It’s about “joy in the service of Hashem; to celebrate Judaism, not see it as a yoke.”

Ten years after his death, his headquarters and his name are the ties that bind followers of his philosophy around the country. His daughter, Neshama, has continued his musical legacy, and Citron is now head of the Carlebach Shul.

Carlebach minyans, or prayer groups, use his tunes during services, weddings and other celebrations. In fact, his tunes have become so prevalent even in mainstream American Jewish life that many Jews sing them in synagogue without being aware that Carlebach wrote them.

His teachings endure, propagated by those who were inspired by Carlebach during his life. For example, hospital chaplain Rabbi Nossen Schafer and his wife, Channah, a psychotherapist, use Carlebach’s approach to healing in their work.

Channah Schafer told a story about a young leukemia patient who was unconscious until a group of friends danced and sang in prayer at her sickbed.

“You need to heal the soul to heal a sick body,” she said.

“Shlomo taught a way of feeling God’s presence and helping others find God’s presence in their lives. That’s what healing is all about,” Nossen Schafer said.

Appropriating Carlebach’s method of helping others resonates for leaders of the movement today.

“I am not Shlomo and I know that and I am not trying to be him, but he did awesome stuff, so what can I do to make awesome stuff happen in this day?” Citron said.

The world has changed since Carlebach’s passing, Citron said, ticking off changes to the economy, the threat of terrorism and growing anti-Semitism.

“How do I be in this new time with what Reb Shlomo taught?” he asked.

For Melinda Ribner, a Carlebach disciple who teaches Jewish meditation, it means being able to “connect upwards and bring down an influx of light and healing” through meditation.

“Shlomo lived in this consciousness of meditation, being aware of God’s presence continually,” she said. “I help people to be able to have that experience more directly.”

According to Citron, Carlebach’s legacy is being strengthened by new efforts. Under Citron’s leadership, for example, the Carlebach Shul has added a music program for children and teens and will launch an anti-drug program.

“This derech,” or path, “is not in the past. It wasn’t canonized as halachah,” or Jewish law, said Citron. “Shlomo created a spiritual trail.”

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