Carlebach revival thriving
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Carlebach revival thriving

TEANECK – "We’re the Southern Baptists of the Jewish people," said Rabbi Naftali Citron of the Jewish movement building up around the music of his great-uncle, the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

Citron is the leader of Manhattan’s Upper West Side Cong. Kehilath Jacob, also known as the Carlebach shul, where lively singing and dancing have become hallmarks of the synagogue once led by Carlebach himself. For the past year, Citron has also been advising the leaders of a growing Carlebach minyan in Teaneck, a minyan that Citron and the Teaneck group’s leaders want to grow into a satellite of New York’s Carlebach shul.


Rabbi Naftali Citron, left, and congregation organizer Shmuley Brodsky attend a service at the Carlebach minyan in Teaneck. RNS photos by Sylwia Kapuscinski/The Star-Ledger of Newark

Growth has been swift for the Teaneck minyan, which held its first service in June ‘005. That September, the group held its first big public program: a melave malke — a meal at the end of Shabbat, often with music — at the Moose Lodge. Organizers worried that, at best, maybe 30 people would show up.

"Instead we had people overflowing into the street," said Shmuley Brodsky, the minyan’s main organizer. "It was a very encouraging sign."

One year later, the minyan, which meets weekly at different members’ homes, draws on average between 35 and 40 people to weekly prayer services and can get up to 100 for its monthly Shabbatonim, said Brodsky. But the Carlebachnics want to see the minyan continue to grow. Through various fund-raising efforts, including membership fees, Brodsky envisions the minyan eventually finding a permanent home and a rabbi.

"We want to have a full-service shul," he said, but he noted that expansion ideas are still in the development phase. However, the minyan has already become a tax-exempt organization. "We’ve done all our homework," Brodsky said.

Robin Benoff has attended the minyan since its start. She does so in honor of her late husband, Allen, as well as for her son, Oren, who attends the Carlebach Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Benoff got her first taste of a Carlebach-style service when she and her husband visited him during Sukkot in ‘004. After her husband’s death the following year, Brodsky approached her about starting a minyan in Teaneck. Together they attended services at the Carlebach shul in New York — an experience Benoff will not forget.

"It combined Friday night meals, singing together, joining for Shabbos with all the beauty of it. You can get up and dance," she said. "It’s sort of cathartic…. Even though I’m probably the oldest person there," she added, "I’m welcomed with great love and made to feel as young as everybody else."

There are more than 100 Carlebach-style minyanim around the world, according to Citron, but many don’t have a message beyond singing.

"We’re not the Southern Baptists when it comes to building institutions. It’s a lot of good intentions without follow-through," he said of past attempts to duplicate New York’s Carlebach experience. Because of a lack of coordination, he said, many Carlebach minyanim burn out when their original founders leave town. Organizers of the Teaneck minyan are focusing on balancing the joyous singing, the deeper message of Shlomo Carlebach, and setting the minyan on the right organizational path, said Brodsky.

Many other minyanim focused on beautiful davening, Brodsky said, but did not invest in leadership development, childcare, or teaching.

"These are all priorities we are emphasizing and that makes us different," he said. "That’s why it’s so important for us to create a permanent venue that will allow Shlomo Carlebach’s teaching to become enduring as well as influential. Without that, it will become silent and fade into history."

"What Shlomo did was to bring to life for our generation the classic teachings of the classic chasidic masters of the 18th and 19th centuries. They are life-altering and extremely profound," Brodsky said. "This particular legacy is imperiled since Shlomo passed away."

Once people pass through the Carlebach shul in Manhattan or have other Carlebach experiences, they often have few options to turn to, outside of Israel, to continue those experiences, Brodsky said.

"We are the prototype," Citron said of the New York shul. "If we can create another prototype, it’ll be easier for the third one and the fourth one to get it right."

Jeremy Bob, who has attended the Teaneck minyan since its inception, agreed with Brodsky. Bob first encountered Carlebach’s melodies during his undergraduate years at Columbia, when he went to the Carlebach shul for Simchat Torah. Ever since he has tried to get involved whenever he has found a Carlebach minyan.

"Many minyanim in Teaneck run through the prayer services a little mechanically. Orthodox Judaism is certainly about an amount of discipline, but also joy and spirit. I hope the Carlebach minyan can inject that," Bob said.

This year, Bob will co-lead the minyan’s High Holy Day services with fellow member Steve Styler. The Carlebach style service addresses a need within Judaism, Styler said.

"A deep and apparently ever-increasing spiritual need amongst our brothers and sisters for a deeper, richer, more musical service — for a community where differences are not just tolerated but embraced," he said.

Styler said that his spirits are lifted and his spirituality is deepened whenever he attends a Carlebach event. "One can find chasidim, people who are Orthodox, and people who are not Orthodox. All of who come with a deep and almost passionate appreciation of the spiritual," he said of his Carlebach experiences.

By working closely with Citron to create this outpost in Teaneck, Brodsky hopes to preserve Carlebach’s legacy of music and Torah. "We’re determined that the only option is to succeed and we’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen," he said.

For more information on the Teaneck Carlebach minyan, visit www.carlebachteaneck.com.

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