How Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach Changed My Life

A few days ago we marked the 25th anniversary of Reb Shlomo Carlebach’s leaving this physical world, though as the main book of Kabbalah, the Zohar, teaches, “when a tzaddik (righteous person) departs, he is present in all worlds even more than he was in his lifetime.”

As someone who never actually merited to meet Reb Shlomo, but whose life was completely transformed by him, I can strongly vouch for the truth of this statement.

Let me share my first encounter with his tremendous impact and influence on the Jewish world and on the lives of thousands upon thousands of individuals.

It was 1997 and a friend, who knew I was just beginning to check out what Judaism might have to offer me in the spiritual search I was on, a search that had thus far brought me into encounters with Native Americans, African shamans and books on Buddhism, told me I had to go Friday night to the Carlebach shul in NYC during our college Spring Break. I just had to, he said.

So I did.

Having never before been in an Orthodox shul, I was definitely a bit hesitant. Walking in and seeing the mehitzah separating the men and the women, I wanted to immediately walk out.

But my friend encouraged me to stay and give it a chance. And stay I did. And because I did, my life was forever changed.

The first difference I noticed between this shul and the one I grew up going to, besides all of the beards and flowing tzitzit, was that here most of the people were standing up, encircling the bimah. There was a kind of half-nervous, half-excited tension in the air as if something big was about to happen. I couldn’t understand what could possibly take place in a shul to merit that kind of anticipation.

And then the singing began. And when it did, and the voices and the eyes and even some of the hands of those standing around me flew upwards in collective joy and exhilaration and celebration, I was dumbfounded. It was as if in one split second they all simultaneously traversed from the world of the mundane to a world of holy bliss. I had never seen such a thing before. At least not in a religious context and for sure not in a Jewish one. At that point in my life, if I wanted to witness lots of happy people celebrating together, I had to go to a Grateful Dead or Phish show.

But this was different. Yes there were lots of people and yes they were happy. But their focus was different. There was none of that “look at me” attention-seeking that happens in any social crowd, no matter how good the intentions. There was no “I will make my voice louder than the others” so that others view them as the leader or as the star. The collective focus I was witnessing and by default part of was a deep longing to connect to the Source of All Life in the most intimate and powerful way possible.

Though I didn’t know any of the melodies being sung, it didn’t matter. My soul knew them and within moments I was singing along with everyone else, as if I had known these songs my entire life. I was dancing with the multitude of people around me as if I had known them and they had known me for years.

The experience was ecstatic and transformative. Words I never would have, and never could have, used to describe a Jewish experience before that moment.

The height of that evening was seeing the rabbi of the shul sing and dance, Rabbi Sam Intrator. The fact that he was a rabbi and he was singing and dancing with the rest of us blew my mind! The greatest amount of feeling and excitement I had ever seen a rabbi display before was a tap of the foot or maybe a cute little clap of the hands. Reb Sam, however, was literally jumping up and down, eyes tight shut, sweat beading up on his forehead, as if he was trying to jump into Heaven or pull God down to Earth. Or both.

It was an incredible sight to see. It changed my perception and my conception of what a rabbi is, or at least should be. He looked like a Jewish shaman, immersed in an ancient Jewish ritual, trying to fix the world through song, prayer and dance.

The prayers went on for hours and when I left the shul, sweating and blissed out, there were a few things I thought to myself:

  1. That’s an Orthodox shul?? Huh??
  2. I never thought I would sweat in shul!
  3. I never thought I would dance in shul!
  4. I never thought I would feel spiritual in shul!
  5. Why did I never ever see anything like this in the Jewish world growing up?? Why did no one ever show me or tell me??

With time, I came to learn two main things. First, that not all Orthodox shuls are like the Carlebach Shul. In fact, most of them are nothing like it. I realized that the hard way when some months later I went to a different Orthodox shul one Friday night, expecting the same level of intense singing and dancing. Let’s just say I didn’t leave sweating or blissed out.

Secondly, I came to learn that the people I prayed with at the Carlebach Shul, including the rabbi himself, learned to pray, sing, dance, celebrate, and open themselves up to the spiritual side of Judaism from Reb Shlomo Carlebach. They merited to be with him in body and in soul. I was among the first of the new generation that would know him only in soul.

As time went on and I learned more about him, I realized that Reb Shlomo was the master, the rebbe, the pathmaker that came to the world to show an entire generation (and more) how Judaism could be and should be. How Judaism was meant to be a deep, mystical, spiritual, and ecstatic experience of life. One that was meant to inspire us and change us and challenge us to find out why God made us.

That night over 20 years at the Carlebach Shul showed me that I had found the spiritual path I had spent years looking for.

I had found my way home.

Thank you Reb Shlomo for showing me, and thousands of others, the way.

About the Author
Akiva Gersh is the editor of the book "Becoming Israeli" (www.becomingisraeli.com), a compilation of blogs and essays that speak of the inspiring and the sometimes wacky and crazy experience of making aliyah. Akiva himself made aliyah in 2004 with his wife Tamar and they live in Pardes Hanna with their four kids. He teaches Jewish history at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel in Hod HaSharon. He is also a musician and in 2010 formed Holy Land Spirit, an uplifting and spiritual musical experience for Christian groups visiting Israel.
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