Exhibition | The House of Love and Prayer
Carlebach and Controversy
BY OREN KROLL-ZELDIN
During his long and influential career, Shlomo Carlebach was accused of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault by multiple women, minors and non-minors alike. Though the accusations date back as far as the 1960’s, most of the stories of his abuse did not begin to come out publicly until after his death in October 1994. Widely publicized in a Spring 1998 Lilith article, “Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s Shadow Side,” written by Sarah Blustain, and championed by Rabbi Lynn Gottleib, who as described in the article, also helped in giving a group of women charging Carlebach with these egregious acts a platform and a voice, the accusations against Carlebach have since become widespread and pervasive.
In her article, Blustain argues that there are three core reasons to raise this issue even after Carlebach’s death:
- Silence. Though a veil of silence protected Carlebach and damaged his accusers during his lifetime, silence is not an acceptable response to these charges.
- Power. Part of why Shlomo was able to continue his work despite these allegations is because of his power as a charismatic leader, who not uncommonly abuse their power, sexually and otherwise.
- Community responsibility. The Jewish community has a responsibility to protect its members and speak out against injustice.
Not surprisingly, the allegations against Shlomo Carlebach constitute a very contentious and divisive issue among Carlebach’s devotees, including those who were involved with the House of Love and Prayer. Though this is a sensitive topic, it is imperative to address these allegations as an essential element of understanding the complexities surrounding the personal experiences some had in relation to the House of Love and Prayer. For many, Carlebach’s presence was a tremendous gift. But for those whom he is accused of abusing, his presence was—and continues to be—deeply painful.
Notably, in twentieth-century America, Carlebach-written melodies have become a common component of religious and cultural forms of Jewish expression, especially in synagogue settings. Some communities have even come to call themselves a “Carlebach minyan” to mark themselves in this way. Such Carlebach-linked ritual practices can mark to survivors of sexual assault, whether allegedly at the hands of Carlebach or others, particular messages regarding Jewish communal spaces that protect abusers and silence their accusers. At the same time, the presence of these same “Carlebach minyans” has served as a starting point for communities to have conversations about sexual assault and harassment.
This controversy around Carlebach continues to divide the people who were at the House of Love and Prayer today. Some people support the women who have come forward with allegations and believe that it is important to discuss this side of Carlebach’s life. They are able to reconcile the fact that their charismatic leader, by whom they were deeply moved and to whom they maintain devotion even to this day, was not perfect. Conversely, others contend that it is unacceptable to discuss the allegations against Carlebach because he is no longer alive and cannot defend himself.
Regardless of one’s orientation on this issue, the accusations of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault against Carlebach remain a critical part of his legacy, and this exhibition on the House of Love and Prayer would be incomplete without acknowledging this storm. For these reasons, particularly in light of the late 2017 emergence of the #MeToo and Silence Breakers movement, it is crucial to address these allegations herein.
All of this said, the House of Love and Prayer is a window into a specific time and place in Jewish history in the San Francisco Bay Area. It is a reflection of the intersection between the convergence of multiple phenomena: a Post-Holocaust form of Jewish identities, the Hippie movement, the Counterculture revolution, New Religious Movements, the city of San Francisco, and a charismatic Jewish religious leader. Though Shlomo Carlebach is unmistakably a foundational component of the House and Love and Prayer, the House of Love and Prayer was, and continues to be, much more.
 A minyan is an edict found in the Talmud requiring a quorum of ten adult males, or, in many contemporary communities, males and females, in order to be able to recite particular Jewish prayers.