The Carlebach Shul was never afraid of broken hearts, but the last decade or so have tested the small shul on West 79th Street.
The shulís rebbe, Shlomo Carlebach ó the musical genius the congregation shared with the world ó went to the Other World in 1994. Rabbi Elichaim Carlebach, his twin brother who led the shul in Shlomoís frequent absences, died in 1990.
Rabbi Sam Intrator, Shlomoís closest aide, filled the void for a few years but left in search of other projects several years ago.
Even as Carlebach-style prayer services have become among the more important synagogue trends across the United States, the 400 member families of Congregation Kehillath Jacob (the Carlebach Shulís other name) carried on without a Carlebach, let alone a rabbi.
While there were
enough skilled congregants and friends able to keep the shul going on a week-to-week basis, a sense of emptiness finally led the shul to go back to the source, hiring Rabbi Naftali Citron, 31, Reb Elichaim Carlebachís grandson, as spiritual leader. He was officially installed this past week.
Synagogue president Samuel Yellin said it wasnít a certainty that the shul would be hiring a Carlebach.
ìWe went through tons of resumes,î he said. ìPeople who werenít related to the Carlebach family certainly had a chance. I remembered Naftali from a decade or so ago, when he was a 20-year-old kid.î
Upon meeting Rabbi Citron again, Yellin said, ìI was just taken by him. He has a wonderful demeanor about him. I thought from his [Lubavitch] family background that heíd be to the right of where a lot of the shul is, religiously and sociologically, but heís not. Heís a broad thinker. He canít be pigeonholed.î
Rabbi Citron, a slim and soft-spoken Los Angeles native who was ordained in a Chabad yeshiva in Brooklyn, had been spiritual leader of a non-Chabad shul in Florida prior to being hired at the Manhattan shul that first hired his great-grandfather, Rabbi Naftali Carlebach, Shlomo and Elichaimís father, in 1950.
ìI remember Shabbos with my grandparents,î Rabbi Citron said, ìbut as I got older I came more often, with a growing affection for the shul itself, not just as a place to visit my grandparents.î
While living and studying in Crown Heights, the young Rabbi Citron found himself drawn to the Carlebach Shul more regularly.
ìMy connection to Shlomo grew deeper,î he recalled, ìas I began to understand the greatness of his heart, his music, his teachings. When my grandfather passed away, Shlomo, as his brother, reached out to me with a powerful impact. Iíd often stay over in the shul, so we had time to talk after everyone went home.î
Asked what was the toughest question posed by the rabbinic search committee, Rabbi Citron cited the problem of handling religious feminist issues in a congregation where a traditional chasidic component coexists with West Side liberal sensibilities.
Rabbi Citron told The Jewish Week, ìMy job is to center the shul, not to let it become either a right-wing place or a left-wing place. Shlomo always remained open to the right and the left.î
Rabbi Citronís grandmother, Hadassah Carlebach, is still on the shul board of directors and a powerful voice for tradition. She continues to bring a homey, grandmotherly touch to the synagogue, says Yellin, particularly for those who remember her more active years when she anchored its organizational needs, and the neighborhood pastoral touch that the well-traveled Shlomo could not always provide.
Reb Shlomoís family has no active role in the shul, though Yellin said it hoped to better involve them in the coming years. Shlomo was single or divorced for much of his tenure, and his ex-wife and two daughters often lived outside New York, leaving them without the closeness to the congregation that Hadassah developed.
In recent years Shlomoís daughter, Neshama, has received critical acclaim for a musical career that evokes her fatherís memory, and Rabbi Citron hopes that his cousin, with whom he had a good relationship, could feel at home again in her fatherís shul.
Rabbi Citron will not be living in Shlomoís small apartment in the two-story shul but in a nearby apartment a few blocks away with his wife, Chani, and two small children.
ìSheís a lovely rebbetzin who wants to be part of the shul,î said Yellin.
The apartment above the shul has been renovated, with walls removed and Shlomoís bedroom and kitchen reconfigured to accommodate an office for Rabbi Citron while lengthening the book-lined living room to better accommodate the Shabbat meals made famous by Shlomo. The meals now attract as many as 80 people from the neighborhood and pilgrimages across the country.
Yet for all the renovation, the apartment still has corners that resemble Shlomoís old House of Love and Prayer in the 1960s, with mismatched furniture haphazardly collected over the years and one shelf that contains the odd juxtaposition of a Talmud encyclopedia and a quart of motor oil.
Rabbi Citron said he has no intention of being an Elvis imitator.
ìI know thereís a lot of nostalgia associated with Shlomo,î he said, ìand a lot of people want to see someone who looks a little bit or sounds a little bit like him, but nobody is him. Sometimes Iíd see and hear in someone else that loving presence that Shlomo would have, and it comes back for that moment, and thatís nice and cute, but you canít sustain a shul or movement on that alone.
ìShlomo and Elichaimís legacy is really about creativity, îs aid Rabbi Citron. ìShlomo was an artist, touching a lot of artists, musicians and writers, and I hope to take that energy and carry it further.
Yellin said Rabbi Citron has the ability to deal with that potentially difficult legacy.
ìIíve seen him deal with situations where you had some of Shlomoís broken chevra [fellowship] coming up and trying to tell him how this or that was done in the old days,î he said. ìNaftaliís able to handle those situations beautifully, asserting authority in a nice and kind way.
The shul will continue to sees itself as the flagship of the informal Carlebach movement.
Our mandate, and Naftaliís, is to carry on Shlomoís mission, Yellin said. ìThat means accepting outreach invitations from Shlomoís chevra from New Orleans to Alaska. Thatís part of the rabbiís duties.
Perhaps his main duty, said Rabbi Citron, is ìto be a friend. Nothing will evoke the Carlebach legacy more than that alone.