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Who was Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach?

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994) is considered to have been the most influential composer of Jewish religious music of the 20th century and a progenitor of the modern neo-Hasidic renaissance. He revolutionized nusach (Jewish melodies)  and zemirot (Jewish songs), transforming Synagogue services throughout the world and he is the only composer to have an entire Shabbat service nusach named after him. He is credited with reviving the Jewish spirit in the aftermath of the Holocaust and for helping thousands of disenchanted youths re-embrace their heritage. Beyond his brilliance as a musician he was a charismatic teacher who traveled the world offering inspirational insights and creating a new form of heartfelt, soulful Judaism - one that was filled with a love for all human beings. He discovered the good in every person, found holiness in the outcasts, treasures in the beggars, and righteousness in the rebels.

Shlomo Carlebach descended from old rabbinical dynasties in pre-Holocaust Germany. He was born in Berlin in 1925, and grew up in Baden near Vienna where his father, Rabbi Naphtali Carlebach, served as Chief Rabbi (1931-1938). With the ominous Nazi rise to power, the Carlebach family traveled to Lithuania, and eventually managed to emigrate to New York, in 1939, where Shlomo’s father became the Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jacob in New York City's Upper West Side. Shlomo and his twin brother Eli Chaim studied at Mesivta Torah Vodaas, a Haredi Yeshiva high school in Will until April 1943. Then the boys joined a dozen students who helped Rabbi Aharon Kotler establish in Lakewood, New Jersey, the first Haredi full time Torah learning Kollel. Shlomo left Lakewood in 1949 and began a career as a traveling outreach emissary of the Grand Rabbi of Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, disseminating the message of Hassidic Judaism in America. In 1954, he received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, the Rosh Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin Yeshiva in Brooklyn.

Shlomo spoke about God and His love in a way that no other Orthodox Rabbi would. "Holy brothers and sisters, I have something really deep to tell you," was his way of addressing a crowd.  He picked up a guitar and began writing songs and visiting coffeehouses and clubs in Greenwich Village, where he met Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and other folk singers. They encouraged his singing career and helped Shlomo get a spot at the Berkeley Folk Festival in 1966. After his appearance, he decided to remain in the Bay Area to reach out to what he called "lost Jewish souls," runaways and drug addicted youths.  He founded a commune-like synagogue called The House of Love and Prayer. "If I would have called it Temple Israel, nobody would have come," he said. "I had the privilege of reaching thousands of kids. Hopefully I put a little seed in their hearts.”

Eleven years later, he closed the House of Love and Prayer and took the remnants of the congregation to Israel, where he established the small settlement of Moshav Meor Modiin, near Ben Gurion Airport.

He and his twin brother, Rabbi Eli Chaim Carlebach, took over the rabbinate of the synagogue after their father's death in 1967. At the end of Yom Kippur, what most rabbis call the most solemn day of the year, Rabbi Carlebach would joyously sing and dance late into the night. He soon became known as “The Singing Rabbi”.

With the production of his first records, “Songs of My Soul” in 1959, and “Sing My Heart” in 1960, Shlomo’s musical career began to take off. His third LP, “At the Village Gate” was produced by Vanguard Records in 1963, and marked the first time that a religious Jewish artist produced an album with a major American record company. With his 4th LP, “In the Palace of the King” and the 5th 1965, Shlomo was on the way to establishing an international following. By 1965, he had been on six trips around the world from Rotterdam to Buenos Aires, Sydney to Rome.

Wake Up World”, both produced in April 1965, Reb Shlomo invented his song “Am Yisrael Chai” for the SSSJ – Student Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, the protest movement for whom he sang at many rallies. It not only became the SSSJ anthem but was also adopted for Jewish causes as a theme of resilience and perseverance. Shlomo’s two and a half decades of involvement in efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry culminated later, in 1989, with the a three week music tour of the Soviet Union, the first time a Jewish singer with Hebrew stories performed in Soviet concert halls.

In 1972, he married Elaine Neila Glick, a teacher. They had two daughters, Nedara (Dari) and Neshama. Neshama Carlebach is a songwriter and singer in her own right, basing herself on her father's style and name.

Shlomo died of a heart attack on a flight to Canada in 1994 (the 16th of Cheshvan 5755). He is buried in Israel in Har HaMenuchot. At the time of his death, Shlomo Carlebach had become a legend of sorts, having had a career that spanned 40 years in which he composed thousands of melodies and recorded 27 albums that continue to have widespread popularity and appeal. His influence continues to this day in "Carlebach minyanim" and Jewish religious gatherings in many cities and remote areas around the globe. Several of his songs had become so popular that people had forgotten who composed them, e.g., “David Melekh Yisrael,” “Od Yeshoma” and “Esa Einai.” Beyond his music legacy, Shlomo gifted the world an inspired, heartfelt Judaism based on joyful optimism and soulful rejuvenation. For that, we are forever grateful.

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Sun, May 26 2024 18 Iyyar 5784