I always thought Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was the epitome of Jewish love until I dated a woman in the summer of 1994 who told me about the sexually harassing phone calls she'd receive from him in the early hours of the morning. He'd moan and ask her what she was wearing. He'd tell her that not only did God love her, but he did too.
So I wasn't surprised when 1997's Internet discussions of Shlomo's indiscretions received a thorough journalistic treatment in the Spring 1998 issue of Lilith (a Jewish feminist magazine which regularly publishes groundbreaking stories).
The most influential Jewish singer of the 20th Century, Shlomo was born in Germany in 1926. His family fled to the United States in 1939. His father founded a synagogue, Kehillat Yaakov, on Manhattan's Upper West Side. For the last 30 years it's been known as the Carlebach shul (on the web at Carlebachshul.org) and is nominally Orthodox.
From a long line of Hasidic rabbis, Shlomo studied at the mitnag Lakewood Yeshiva but was ordained by Chabad and, in 1949, sent by rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson to do outreach to secular Jews. The charismatic singer ditched those parts of Orthodox Judaism he found inconvenient such as the mehitza (partition between men and women during prayer), and the laws against women singing publicly before men. Shlomo hugged everybody, including women he was not married to. He talked about wanting to hug every Jew in the world.
Along with his friend rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi (who became the leader of the Renewal movement), he was excommunicated by Chabad in the 1950s.
While Orthodox doors shut on him, many others opened as Jewish youth fell in love with his modern spin on Hasidic songs and stories. Shlomo combined popular presentations of Jewish mysticism and Jewish practice with messages about self-fulfillment and health food.
In 1969, he organized a commune in San Francisco called the House of Love and Prayer. As many as 40 people lived there during the 1970s. Other Carlebach-style communities sprung up in Los Angeles (Or Chadash) and Israel (Mishav Meot Midin, a communal farm).
During the 1980s, Shlomo embraced much of the New Age movement and its rhetoric about a new heavenly knowledge spreading around the world. He recorded about 25 albums and wrote several songbooks. By not copyrighting his work, he made it easier to spread.
Shlomo never cashed-in on his popularity and when he died on October 20, 1994, he was not only poor, but bitter about his poverty. In the years following his death, ceremonies honoring the rabbi were interrupted by numerous women who said he'd sexually molested them.
As Lilith investigated, they found that the charges went back four decades and that various Jewish organizations (such as ALEPH and Elat Chayyim) had not invited Shlomo to their events because of his reputation as a predator. "He was the first person to ordain women, to take down the mechitza and I think he thought all boundaries were off," psychotherapist Abigal Grafton told Lilith.
Her Renewal congregation in Berkeley spent months wrestling with the allegations against Shlomo. Various women told Lilith that when they were underage, Shlomo would grope and dry-hump them.
When Robin Goldberg was 12 years old, Shlomo gave a concert to her Harrisburg, Pennsylvania community. Inviting the young people for a pre-concert dance, Shlomo repeatedly fondled her breast and whispered "holy maidele" into her ear. Years later when she was in college, the rabbi did the same thing to her.
Rabbi Goldie Milgram remembers that when she was 14, Shlomo stayed at her parents house for the Sabbath. Late at night, they met in the hallway. "He pulled me up against him, rubbed his hands up my body and under my clothes and pulled me up against him. He rubbed up against me; I presume he had an orgasm. He called me mammele."
Marcia Cohn Spiegel, a specialist in addiction and sexual abuse, told Lilith that numerous women in their 40s approached her "in private and often with deep-seated pain" about their molestation at the hands of Carlebach while they were teenagers.
"He singled them out with some excuse…[G]etting them alone, he fondled their breasts and vagina, sometimes thrusting himself against them muttering something, which they now believe was Yiddish."
Another type of story Spiegel heard often was from women who went to Shlomo "for help with problems, or who met him when they studied with him. They were in their 20s or 30s when it happened. He would call them late at night (two or three o'clock in the morning) and tell them that he couldn't sleep. He had been thinking of them. He asked, Where were they? What were they wearing?"
Shlomo Carlebach is the best known Orthodox rabbi/predator of modern times. He is widely regarded throughout the Jewish community as a saint. His teachings and music influence tens of thousands of Jews, including various Orthodox rabbis who got into trouble sexually, such as Michael Ozair, Jeremy Hershy Worch, Marc Gafni and Mordecai Tendler.