Aryae Coopersmith (right) with Shlomo Carlebach at the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco
Aryae Coopersmith (right) with Shlomo Carlebach at the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco

Purge Reb Shlomo? It’s more complicated than that

In his article “How to purge the music of Shlomo Carlebach in the age of #MeToo,” David A.M. Wilensky glosses over an assumption he’s making — that he thinks the best response to the complex story of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach is to purge his music. But is it? Apparently he hasn’t spoken much with the women whose cause he claims to be championing.

I have. I was close friends with women who were sexually involved with Reb Shlomo in the 1960s (though I didn’t find out until years later).

I have since sat with an open heart with dozens of women who experienced his inappropriate behaviors, and listened to their stories.

As co-founder Reb Shlomo’s House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco in 1968, I wrote a memoir about those years, “Holy Beggars,” which was published in 2011. (See Dan Pine’s 2011 article about it in J.)

I chose to include in my book what I witnessed and knew of Reb Shlomo’s misconduct with women. As a student of his who still considers him a rebbe, this was a difficult decision for me. It resulted in fierce opposition, including legal threats, as well as the loss of some of my dearest Orthodox friends in Israel.

What motivated me was to honor the full, complex range of what I lived through at that pivotal time for American Judaism. That meant acknowledging and honoring the women who had been hurt by Reb Shlomo’s actions and doing what I could to support their healing. It also meant acknowledging and honoring the enormous love, and the enormous contribution, that Reb Shlomo made to my life as a spiritual seeker and a Jew — and his similar contributions to thousands of others, Jew and non-Jew alike.

It was hard. So much of our current public discourse has descended to angry tweets: “He was a sexual abuser!” “No, he was a perfect tzadik!” Real life is more complicated. Wisdom, understanding, compassion, healing — all take effort.

Of all the women I was privileged to sit with, listen to, and cry with after the publication of my book, none of them felt that they wanted his music to be banished. For many, that would have made them feel even worse. What they wanted was to be heard, recognized, valued, respected.

Continual renewal of music in Jewish liturgy is positive and necessary for a vibrant, evolving community. But censorship is not. Instead of a censorship crusade, let’s focus on what will really make a difference: high standards of decency and accountability for all, especially leaders; safety and support for everyone to share what they are experiencing; and community life where everyone is respected and valued.

Aryae Coopersmith
Aryae Coopersmith

Aryae Coopersmith co-founded Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco in 1968, and later wrote a memoir about it, “Holy Beggars: A Journey from Haight Street to Jerusalem,” published in 2011. Today Aryae leads the One World Lights (OWL) global community, whose vision is “global citizens supporting a course-change for humanity by supporting each other.” He and he and his wife Wendy Berk host the Coastside Torah Circle, Torah learning where “the circle is the rebbe,” at their home in Half Moon Bay.