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. He is the only composer to have an entire Shabbat service nusachnamed after him. Reb Shlomo 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, Reb Shlomo 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 immigrate to New York. In 1939, Shlomo’s father became the Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jacob on 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 Williamsburg until April 1943. Then the boys joined a dozen students who helped Rabbi Aharon Kotler establish the first Haredi full time Torah learning Kollel in Lakewood, New Jersey. Shlomo left Lakewood in 1949 and began a career traveling as an outreach emissary of the Grand Rabbi of Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, disseminating the message of Hassidic Judaism in America. In 1954, Shlomo received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, the Rosh Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin Yeshiva in Brooklyn.

With the production of his first records, “Songs of My Soul” in 1959, and “Sing My Heart” in 1960, Reb 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 fourth LP, “In the Palace of the King” and the fifth in 1965, Reb 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 and from Sydney to Rome.

Reb 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 Reb 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.”

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach 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, which most rabbis consider the most solemn day of the year, Reb Shlomo would joyously sing and dance late into the night. He soon became known as “The Singing Rabbi”.

In April 1965, Reb Shlomo composed his song “Am Yisrael Chai” for the SSSJ – Student Struggle for 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 the theme of resilience and perseverance. Reb Shlomo’s two and a half decades of involvement in efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry culminated in 1989 with the a three-week musical tour of the Soviet Union, the first time a Jewish singer with Hebrew stories performed in Soviet concert halls.

Reb Shlomo married Elaine Neila Glick, a teacher, in 1972. 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.

In 1975, Reb Shlomo closed The House of Love and Prayer and took the remnants of his congregation to Israel, where he established the small settlement of Moshav Me’or Modi’in, near Ben Gurion Airport.

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