Neshama Carlebach singing at an event about her relationship with her father Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, June 12, 2018 (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
Neshama Carlebach singing at an event about her relationship with her father Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, June 12, 2018 (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

Neshama Carlebach speaks about her famed father’s legacy of sexual abuse

Neshama Carlebach said that as she got ready to deliver her June 12 talk at Congregation Emanu-El, her first impulse was to scream and run out of the room.

It was the sixth time this year the 43-year-old musician was addressing such an audience, all of them since she began speaking publicly about her father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and the allegations of sexual assault that have swirled around him since his death in 1994. Spurred on by the #MeToo movement, she began to acknowledge these multiple charges in early January, when the Times of Israel published her op-ed, “My Sisters, I Hear You.”

The number of women victimized by her father over the years is not known; many who traveled in his circles estimate it was in the hundreds, or higher. The charges ranged from sexually charged late-night phone calls to overly long, inappropriate hugs with teenage girls that sometimes ended with him ejaculating. Many of his accusers live in the Bay Area, but given his reach and how much he traveled, others are scattered throughout the country and beyond.

His family members had never spoken about these allegations until Neshama Carlebach took the plunge this year. A musician who has built her career on performing her father’s music and serving as a standard-bearer for his musical legacy, she says her singing career has suffered from the fallout surrounding her father, including a recent push to ban his music from synagogues. If his music isn’t sung, she told the crowd, neither is hers.

Her own family opposes her speaking out, she said.

Emanu-El is only two blocks from where Shlomo Carlebach established his famous House of Love and Prayer in 1968, said Rabbi Sydney Mintz, who introduced Neshama. Acknowledging that some in the room that night had known her father, and perhaps even been victimized by him, she admitted, “I was extra scared tonight because I know this is a holy spot. I knew I would see people here who knew him. I’m really glad I was brave enough.”

Shlomo Carlebach at his 1960s base of operations, the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco
Shlomo Carlebach at his 1960s base of operations, the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco

Neshama Carlebach lives in New York, where she is engaged to Rabbi Menachem Creditor, who recently left Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom to join her. He sat in the front of the sanctuary, silently offering his support, as she faced the crowd seated with her close friends Cantor Marsha Attie and Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Emanu-El, and Rabbi Ken Chasen from the Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles, who were there to back her up on guitar and sing with her, and offer their support as well.

No one knew what the evening would bring, or how far the daughter would go in condemning the father. She implicitly accepted the premise that he had abused many women, but did not address specific accusations.

“The intention tonight is to create new beginnings, to come to a place not of conclusion but of opening for healing,” said Mintz. “We’re part of a tradition that is based on teshuvah and reckonings … we are not only people who have been hurt, but everyone here has hurt themselves or another.

“Just sit and think about what it would be like to sit up here and talk about your own family. Would you be brave enough?”

Shlomo Carlebach was born in 1925 in Berlin. He fled Nazi Europe with his family in 1939, landing in the United States, where he attended strictly Orthodox schools in New Jersey. In 1949 he became one of the first Chabad emissaries, reaching out to Jewish students on college campuses, but he soon left his position — and the Chabad movement — over Orthodox Judaism’s required separation between men and women. He insisted on women singing in public and mingling with men in spaces where Orthodox tradition held they should not. A talented musician and charismatic spiritual leader with thousands of followers, particularly in Jewish Renewal circles, his music today is ubiquitous in synagogues of all stripes.

His death roiled the Renewal world, leading to what some called a cult of veneration around the man. But a 1998 article in the feminist Jewish magazine Lilith detailed numerous stories from women who said they and/or others had been molested by the powerful and popular rabbi, most when they were quite young. The reverberations from that news — and his family’s silence — continue today.

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb in front of a mural at Chochmat HaLev, where she is education director (Photo/Alix Wall)
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb in front of a mural at Chochmat HaLev, where she is education director (Photo/Alix Wall)

The Lilith article might not have happened without Renewal Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb. Now the youth and family director of Congregation Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley, Gottlieb reported to the magazine that some 20 women had shared their stories of abuse with her.

Gottlieb chose not to attend Neshama Carlebach’s talk this week, but she talked to J. beforehand. “I would hope she says, ‘My father was a predator, he assaulted hundreds of children.’ She doesn’t have to apologize, but she does have to say the truth, and she could certainly express empathy for the victims.” Indeed, she did express that empathy and admit the truth of her father’s abuse.

Abigail Grafton, a Berkeley psychotherapist and longtime lay leader of Aquarian Minyan, one of the first Renewal communities, had similar hopes for the evening. She had witnessed the division caused by the original Lilith article (in which she was quoted) between those who sided with the women bringing charges and those who couldn’t bear to hear such things about a revered figure. The conversation resurfaced within Aquarian Minyan this year after Neshama began speaking out, as members debated whether they should stop using his music.

The week before the Emanu-El talk, Grafton told J., “I realized I feel compassion for everybody, but my position is that the Shlomo establishment has to stop saying the women are liars, and they need to stop with the death threats [some who have continued to speak out or publish articles about his misbehavior have received death threats]. What I personally need is for them to admit it happened and then apologize and only then can I move on, but unfortunately I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”

Neshama Carlebach began the evening with a few songs, first “Olam Chesed Yibane” by Creditor, then one of her own English songs. After telling the crowd of several dozen that she loved them, she acknowledged how torn she is. “I don’t have the language to express how much I love my father and how sad and angry I am,” she said. “There are people in so much pain, and to the people in pain I say this: Get up with me, and let’s change this, and even while we cry about it, let’s sing, and let’s talk about it. Let’s decide together that our children will never ever say #MeToo ever again. … We have to begin a new revolution.”

With a lot of song, and a powerful voice that both soared and trembled, she came across as vulnerable. On the one hand, she spoke of the love she had for her father. “I have always been my father’s daughter, from the minute I was born, and he lay me inside the Torah, a girl baby, God forbid! I was his and he was mine. He was my best friend, he just was.”

Yet at the same time, she said, as much light as her father brought into the world and into her own life, there were downsides to being his daughter.

She shared that at age 9, she was molested in her own bed by a rabbi who was one of her father’s friends. When she told her father, he didn’t believe her.

“This man molested all the women and children I knew, and I haven’t figured out what to do about it,” she said. “He’s still doing it.”

She also told the audience a painful story about when she saw her father with new eyes. She was 15, and it was Shavuot. They were walking in the streets after staying up all night studying on the holiday when they came upon a homeless man in an alcove.

While no one else noticed him, Reb Shlomo, as he was known, stopped to have a conversation with the man. As the group moved on and reached a corner, Reb Shlomo left the group and came back with a huge tray of chicken for the man. Then, after leaving him again, he went back and gave him his coat.

Then, he told his daughter, “Go hug him.” As Neshama recounted, “the man grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. My father said he was proud of me, but at that moment I saw the boundary-lessness of his life.

“I saw it all, I was the chicken, I was the coat, I was the object to be given away to save the world. He wasn’t just objectifying me, he was objectifying himself. I was just an extension of him, and he loved me so much that he neglected me the same way he neglected himself.”

Let’s change this, and even while we cry about it, let’s sing, and let’s talk about it.

How to understand the trajectory her father’s life took? She offered one insight, which others have also suggested. “When he emerged from yeshiva, he came out in to the world of Woodstock and Berkeley, which I’m sure was not a simple place to be living in.”

Attempting to explain her two decades of silence about her father, she stopped herself at one point to say, “Don’t look at me with pity. When the allegations first emerged I was still an Orthodox woman. No one had ever heard me, and I couldn’t hear women either. … I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed of my own upbringing, and I’m ashamed of where my heart was. I couldn’t hear. I’m hearing now.”

She spoke about how she became disillusioned with Orthodox Judaism, feeling that as a woman she didn’t matter. She also spoke of her divorce, which contributed to her being ostracized from the Orthodox world.

“I know nothing about everyone else’s pain. I can barely ingest my own,” she said. “There are many things I’ve been through and this moment is by far the worst, but I believe I have something to give. While that gift may not be perfect, and you may take offense, or you may not like my perspective, I love you anyway.

“I’m not here to change anyone’s mind. I might be one small ray of light and give someone a kernel of hope. Maybe if I stand up and I’m brave, maybe someone else will be too.”

One of the few who did speak up that evening was Rabbi Sara Shendelman, who with her then-husband helped found Chochmat HaLev and led it for many years. Twenty years after the original Lilith article appeared, she says she is still being contacted by women, perhaps because of her role in having challenged Reb Shlomo directly.

(Left) Rabbi Sara Shendelman and Abigail Grafton (Photo/Alix Wall)
(Left) Rabbi Sara Shendelman and Abigail Grafton (Photo/Alix Wall)

As recounted in the 1998 article, and as she retold it at Emanu-El, her Rosh Hodesh women’s group had been discussing the allegations for months and agreed they must confront Carlebach with what they knew. But when the time for the intervention came and Shendelman said, “Shlomo, the real reason we brought you here is to discuss your inappropriate conduct with women,” the other women all remained silent, leaving Shendelman to speak to the rabbi alone in another room.

Shendelman said that all of her life, she feels she’s been called to speak truth to power. Yet it’s never easy, she said, admitting that her heart was pounding as she stood to face Neshama.

“Too many people knew about your father and wouldn’t speak out, and maybe something would have happened sooner if they did,” she said. Noting that her husband had been close to Reb Shlomo, to the point of exhibiting questionable behavior himself that eventually got the couple ousted from Chochmat HaLev, she added, “My heart is with you and my life has been changed and devastated by this. We both have a lot to teach, and there’s a lot of healing to be done.”

Shendelman then gave a blessing to the daughter of the man she blames for bringing harm to so many women’s lives: “I bless you that you can feel God and the angels in your heart and that you can feel your father’s spirit saying, ‘Go ahead and say it, I need this to be healed, and it can be healed through you.’ All we can do now is see it and acknowledge it and bless it for what it has taught us and try to spread light and healing out into the world.”

Then the two women embraced.

After Grafton had time to reflect on the evening, she told J. that when Neshama told the story about her father encouraging her to hug the homeless man, “that was when it came together for me that she is not him, and that she was actually releasing into the world the real horror of her childhood. But she’s not imprisoned by it anymore.”

Grafton continued, “This is a woman who is on a spiritual journey. She has integrated terrible things that happened in her childhood and has known about her father, and yet experienced the wonderful and profound things her father did in the world. She is able to be open and honest and vulnerable and say these things happened and this is what happened for me and for you, and let’s go on together.”

Grafton said she has invited her to sing at the Aquarian Minyan. Neshama Carlebach told her she has not been welcome in Jewish Renewal circles as of yet, but one day, she would love to come.

“The only way not to be crippled by this is to integrate it, and she has,” said Grafton. “I have great admiration for her. This took incredible courage.”

Headshot of Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."