Remembering Reb Shlomo: Opening the Doors of Return

You will surely arise and take pity on Tzion, for it is time to be gracious to her; the appointed time has come. Psalms 102:14 (The Israel Bible™)

Wednesday evening is the yahrtzeit (anniversary of the death) of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and even though he left this world 24 years ago, his influence on the spiritual world of Jews and non-Jews is still being felt today.

“He was the founder of the kiruv (outreach) movement,” Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman, director of the Ohr Chadash Torah Institute and a student of Rabbi Carlebach, told Breaking Israel News. “This was an essential change in the Torah world. Before Reb Shlomo, there were hardly any doors open to those who were not raised religiously to connect to Torah and Judaism.”

“Through his music, tolerance, openness and infectious love of people, Torah and God he drew thousands of Jews back to their Jewish roots and paved the way for a whole generation of institutions to gear programs to those wishing to connect to their Judaism,” Rabbi Trugman said.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, or Reb Shlomo as he was known to his adherents, was born in Berlin in 1923 to a family dynasty of prestigious rabbis, later moving to Austria and Switzerland. He moved with his family to New York City in 1938, barely escaping before the Second World War and the Holocaust. Studying at some of the most prestigious yeshivot (Torah seminaries) in America, he was quickly recognized as one of the most outstanding scholars of his generation.

In his early 20’s, Reb Shlomo developed a close personal connection with the sixth Lubavitcher-Chabad Rebbe (spiritual leader), Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn. When he passed away in 1950, Reb Shlomo became close with his successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, becoming one of his first emissaries. Reb Shlomo was sent out to teach Torah on college campuses. Challenging the boundaries of tradition, Reb Shlomo chose music over sermons, playing guitar and singing to gender-mixed audiences. This aspect of his work led to a rift between Reb Shlomo and the Chabad Rebbe that never fully healed. The Chabad Rebbe could not have one of his emissaries leading such gatherings, though he acknowledged the powerful results of Reb Shlomo’s work.

“At their last meeting, the Rebbe said to Reb Shlomo, ‘I can’t tell you what to do and I can’t tell you what not to do. But go out and be successful’,” Rabbi Trugman related.

As one of the most brilliant scholars, his yeshiva peers and teachers urged Reb Shlomo to pursue a career in Torah. Carlebach chose to pursue a career in music, going on to record 27 albums. Despite being unable to read music, he put verses from the Bible to music, composing thousands of songs that went on to become classics. He appeared at popular music festivals with the folk music greats like Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Richie Havens. Playing to crowds in the ‘60’s, he referred to his followers as “Holy hippelach (hippies).”

His followers opened up a shul (small, informal synagogue) in San Francisco called the House of Love and Prayer, and another in Manhattan called the Carlebach Shul. He also helped establish the community of Mevo Modiin in Israel. He appeared regularly on Israeli television.

Reb Shlomo was groundbreaking, even controversial, in many ways. Known as “the singing Rabbi,” he revived the popular study of Hasidic teachings, combining music with storytelling. He encouraged women’s singing, forbidden by mainstream Jewish law, and hugged his female followers. He gave away almost all of his earnings to charity and many of his greatest followers were the homeless. In 1989, he became the first musician to tour the Soviet Union performing Jewish songs. He performed two musical tours of Poland, emphasizing a message of forgiveness for the Holocaust.

“Reb Shlomo was criticized for performing in Poland, a place where the soil was soaked with Jewish blood,” Rabbi Trugman related. “But he answered his critics by saying, ‘If had two hearts, one for loving and one for hating, I woulld hate them. But I have only one heart so I choose to make it a heart of love.”

His music has been favored by several popes, most notably John Paul II who had Reb Shlomo’s music played at the beginning of an appearance in Giant’s Stadium in New Jersey in 1995. In an interview two years ago, Neshama, the rabbi’s musician daughter, stated that, according to her father, Pope Benedict listened to Carlebach music and even used some of the tunes in the public services in the Vatican. Neshama also revealed that the musical rabbi’s connection to the Vatican was almost up-close and personal. After her father passed away, she found an invitation among his papers to travel to Rome and sing for Pope John Paul.

Rabbi Raz Hartman teaches at Yeshivat Simchat Shlomo (Shlomo’s joy) and performs on piano, singing many of Reb Shlomo’s songs.

“Reb Shlomo very simply connected people to Hashem (God, literally ‘the name’), all people, breaking through a lot of the barriers that prevented the soul from arriving directly at its creator,” Rabbi Hatman told Breaking Israel News. “He never screened the people who came to learn from him so people from all religions were in his lessons.”

“I feel like he allowed people to dream again; Jews after the Holocaust and other people who had been disillusioned by the world. [The] Beit Hamikdash (the Temple) is a dream but it is a real dream,” Rabbi Hartman said. “He enabled people to imagine that there was somewhere we were all going called geula (redemption).”

Reb Shlomo frequently appeared at multi-faith spiritual gatherings, befriending gurus and swamis as well as Christian faith leaders.

“Reb Shlomo used to go to so many of these spiritual jamborees,” Rabbi Trugman said. “They were meant as meetings of the East and West. He went because he knew that so many of the people there who were attracted to Buddhism and the other Eastern religions were Jews. He wanted to re-introduce them to the Torah.”

Trugman pointed out that Reb Shlomo’s yahrtzeit always coincides with Torah readings about Abraham.

“Most of the people at these gatherings were not Jewish,” he emphasized. “Reb Shlomo believed in the original vision of the Patriarch Abraham, the father of many nations. He felt strongly that his message was fiercely Jewish but he also believed that we need to bring everyone to the realization of one God.”

He also attracted non-Jews and taught them Torah. Together with Rabbi Meir Kahane, whom he greatly admired, he organized one of the first Noahide conferences in the 1980’s.

Rabbi Shlomo Katz is continuing in the footsteps of his teacher. A singer/guitarist as well as a highly sought-after teacher of Torah, Rabbi Katz, was deeply influenced by Carlebach. Katz noted that his teacher’s intention was to connect to people of all religions.

“Reb Shlomo taught that when it is true to itself, every nation has its own song,” Katz told Breaking Israel News. “The point of this world is that each nation should give harmony to each other. When the whole world is singing together in harmony, that will usher in the Great Day.”

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach passed away in 1994, the 16th of Cheshvan while traveling by plane en route to Canada. He is buried on Har Menuchot in Jerusalem and his graveside covered in stones (the traditional symbol for people visiting a Jewish grave to leave).  His legacy continues and his songs remain classics.