It was a break from the usual routine and an opportunity to reconnect with friends who live in Manhattan. But it was also more than that. It was a chance to daven Kabbalas Shabbos in the Carlebach Shul, and Shacharis the next morning at Ohab Zedek (OZ) on West 95th Street with Rabbi Allen Schwartz.
Then there was the matter of Selichos at 1 a.m. with the Carlebach crowd, led by the inimitable Yehuda Green, at the West Side Institutional Synagogue on West 76th Street, which ran with exuberance until almost 4 a.m. I had heard about the experience and had studied some of the videos on YouTube. Being there, however, brought everything I’ve heard and seen to life.
As a prelude to the Selichos liturgy, Yehuda worked the crowd into a high frenzy singing, “Avinu Malkeinu, our Father, our King” with everyone joining in. And that is Rosh Hashanah at its core, connecting with G-dliness, surrendering ourselves to His Will and coronating Him as our King.
It was a new experience, though we did spend a Shabbos in the city a few years ago. That was for a special occasion and this was just to absorb what life on the West Side is about at this time of year, a week before Rosh Hashanah.
The conclusion is the sense that Orthodox Jewish life in the city is different — or maybe it is not and we just need to adjust to something that seems unusual to us.
First and foremost, by design, we stayed just a few blocks from the Carlebach Shul, as it says on the side of the awning. In a few weeks we will be marking the 25th yahrzeit of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, z’l. It is difficult to disagree about the great impact Reb Shlomo, as he was known to many, had and still has today on the liturgical fashion in which we daven and pray to Hashem.
Perhaps you prefer to be critical about some things that you do not really specifically know about Reb Shlomo but have assumed are true. Those issues aside, there was no contemporary figure who is present in our davening, whether Shabbos or yom tov, like Shlomo Carlebach.
But that is Reb Shlomo from a distance. Sitting there on a Friday night inside the inner sanctum where once upon a time Rabbi Carlebach led the services and where his fans flocked to be in his presence offers a completely different vibe.
First of all, this is the West Side of the greatest city in the world (after Jerusalem). Millions of people live in the city and this part of the borough is dotted with tall buildings with a concentration of observant Jewish residents. On Friday night, for about 45 minutes after Shabbos arrived, we sat in the Carlebach Shul and waited for a tenth person to arrive so that we could start the minyan.
I was somewhat dismayed at the difficulty, but that concern was allayed the next night when the Carlebach Shul was determined years ago to be way too small to accommodate the overflow crowds that flock to the West Side for a Carlebach Selichos led by his heir apparent, Yehuda Green.
On Shabbos morning, we made our way up to West 95th Street to daven at Ohab Zedek, the more than 100 year old shul planted and built in the center of a tree-lined residential block that attracts a broad spectrum of West Siders. The shul is led by the personable and talented Rabbi Allen Schwartz, who has been the shul rabbi since 1988.
Thanks to Rabbi Schwartz and his wife, as well as our friends Karen and Joe Frager, we lunched together on Shabbos at the rabbi’s home on West End Avenue. There was a spirited conversation around the table centered on the parashah and the Rosh Hashanah season, with people from disparate backgrounds assembled together for a couple of hours to compare notes on life as we know it today.
Later in the day, for Minchah, it was back to the Carlebach Shul where I had to wait even longer than the night before for a tenth person to arrive so that we could have a minyan. I was both slightly put off and fascinated by the seeming difficulty — at least this week — to patch together a minyan here.
It occurred to me that perhaps this is the way we treated and still treat Reb Shlomo today. That is, we love who he was, his niggunim inspire us, but at the same time we are most comfortable keeping him in our hearts emotionally but otherwise at arm’s distance.
Shortly it will be 25 years since Reb Shlomo passed away at the age of 69. The Shlomo Carlebach who left his mark on a generation is not going anywhere; he is with us to stay and we can welcome him. The shul should not have to struggle to put together a minyan.
Being that I was the tenth man at Minchah on Shabbos, when they asked me to go upstairs to Reb Shlomo’s apartment atop the shul, I obviously could not refuse, and I am glad that I did make my way up there for shalosh seudos. Frankly, it was eerie as well as airy. I sat near Yehuda Green as we shared some salmon and salad. I was never up there before but I did have a few occasions to sit with Shlomo in radio studios in the late 1970s through the mid-80s.
In those days, though he was extremely popular, he also felt isolated. He once told me that the irony of his life was that when kids would get into trouble and turn away from religion, the parents would call him and ask him to help. But then when the child — usually already more adult than child — would straighten out and was about to get married, Reb Shlomo said, the people whose child he helped to return would forget about him and not even extend an invitation to the wedding. That hurt him.
Upstairs in the apartment on W. 79th Street, the sun began to set. There were about 15 of us — ten men and five women — and Yehuda began to sing some of Shlomo Carlebach’s signature songs. Up on the wall facing me was a large photo of Reb Shlomo seemingly staring down at us. To the right of this large photo was a picture or perhaps a painting of his father looking in a sefer.
I looked around and down the long hallway, wondering about the setup. “This is where Reb Shlomo lived,” Yehuda said. It wasn’t necessary to say too much more. We sat and sang where Shlomo lived, and I was thinking that somewhere in those melodies there is a dimension of him that is very much still there.
Later that night, outside the West Side Institutional Synagogue on West 76th Street at about 12:30 a.m., people were already streaming in from all directions. A few people were selling tickets on the street. It was $20 to get inside and then anywhere from $25 to $180 for a seat in the spacious shul.
Rabbi Naftoli Citron, rabbi of the Carlebach Shul, speaking prior to Selichos, said that on this night we would deceive the satan, the evil inclination and the heavenly prosecutor of the Jewish people particularly at this time of year. “The satan thinks there is a great party going on in here with all the singing and dancing, so he is going to take his business elsewhere.”
Yes, there was singing and swaying but it was not a party; it was a giddiness inspired by 1,500 people, maybe more, attaching themselves to G-dliness.
It’s true that the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed and that Hashem the King is not Divinely present in His “home.” At this time of year, however, we believe that Hashem is not at home in part because He is out here — in the fields, in the shuls — with us