Saturday, February 24, 2007

Ariela's Story: A Survivor of Shlomo Carlebach Speaks Out

© (2007) by Ariela
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

It was a warm summer afternoon in 1974 and I was out in the back yard playing baseball with my brother when my mom called out, "Phone call, Ariela Hurry! It's a rabbi in New York!"

I raced inside, my heart pounding. A long distance call for me? A rabbi? Wow! Maybe it’s a response to my letter! When I heard a voice say, "Hello Ariela, this is Shlomo Carlebach".

I was filled with immense joy. My letter had not only reached him - a great rabbi, teacher, and musician - but he had read it, and been motivated to pick up the phone and call me, a lonely sixteen-year old searching for spiritual sustenance.

I had felt alone with my religious thoughts and feelings until the day a few weeks before when I had read a full-page interview with Rabbi Carlebach in our local Jewish weekly. I was thrilled to read what Shlomo said about the spiritual hunger of young people. Deeply moved, I felt compelled to write to Rabbi Carlebach and thank him for all he had said in his interview. I told him that I was seeking, and that I had many questions. In my letter I said that I imagined Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed and other great spiritual teachers sharing a round-table in Heaven, discussing how best to help humanity. I had felt a little nervous writing that, but since he seemed to have such an open, loving heart I felt encouraged to be completely honest. And now he was telling me how special and wise I was! He asked me to introduce myself to him in person the next time he visited Vancouver. I looked forward to that. Maybe he could be my teacher, and I could come to know the Jewish faith deeply, and live it the way he did.

He was planning a concert with At this time, although I had been brought up in a Conservative Synagogue, I was going by myself to the Orthodox synagogue because I hoped there I would find people living Judaism with more ‘kevanah’. I told my peers at this synagogue about Shlomo’s call The Orthodox shul.  Shlomo in the near future. "But be careful," my friends warned. "Shlomo is renowned for having many special female ‘friends’."

When he came to Vancouver I felt torn. I wanted to go up to him after the concert and tell him I was the ‘special and wise’ person who had sent him the letter; but I didn’t want to be duped by a man who was actually looking to satisfy his lust. So I stayed well back and observed him from afar. Yes, he clearly was hugging and kissing a lot of young women, and it made me uncomfortable. Disappointed, I chose not to say hello.

And so we didn’t meet in person until 1991. After high school I attended a Yeshiva for six months, and then married a non-Jew after my first year of college. I continued my spiritual search but to please my father I tried to raise my three children as Jews. My marriage was very unhappy, and at twenty-five I became a single mother. The week after my oldest child celebrated her Bat Mitzvah, Rabbi Carlebach gave a concert in the very same room in which her Bat Mitzvah had taken place. Invited to attend, I went expecting to enjoy his melodies, sing along, and share in the holy atmosphere he was so gifted in creating. During Shlomo’s concerts it seemed to me as if he broke down the walls between Heaven and earth, and made me feel as if we were singing at God’s throne, together with other beloved souls who loved God too.

Throughout the concert Rabbi Carlebach’s eyes often looked over at me and I knew he had noticed me. After the concert, as people filed past him on their way home, and he hugged them good-bye, he stopped me and asked me if we had met before. I explained that although we had never met, he had phoned me after receiving a letter from me when I was sixteen. "And how is it that we have not stayed in touch all these years?" he asked me.

He told me that we must keep in touch this time, that we needed to talk, and he asked for my phone number. I had not heard any rumors about Shlomo in the years since the last concert I attended. I was still hoping to feel at home in the Jewish community, and still filled with questions. So, hopeful that maybe now I had found my teacher, I gave him my number.

Very late that night, I was awakened by a call. I was stunned to hear Shlomo’s voice, "Could you meet me for breakfast at my hotel in the morning?" he asked. I told him that I had heard rumors about him and women. I told him that I was seeking a place for myself in Judaism, and that I would love to learn from him. I asked him if he understood that I only wanted to meet with him for those reasons, and he said he did.

I felt a lot like I had after my phone call from him seventeen years earlier, and in many ways I was still the same person: lonely, hopeful, yearning for God, eager to learn how best to serve Him, excited to have others to share the journey Home with, and excited to have a spiritual community. So excited I couldn’t sleep

I remember the beautiful sunny morning and the long bus ride to his hotel. When I got there he wasn’t in the lobby, and upon calling his room to let him know I was there, he asked me to come up to his room. Somewhat frightened, but ever hopeful, I went up and he immediately took me in his arms and french-kissed me. I felt disgusted and disappointed, but rather than simply leaving, I begged him to go back down to the lobby restaurant so we could talk over breakfast.

It is very hard in retrospect to admit to my foolish and incredibly naïve behaviour. It seems that my capacity for hope overrode my ability to believe what was happening. From my own past experiences I have learned to blot out parts of the picture that are too painful, and focus on that which is good. Life is so filled with pain that this is a common coping mechanism. I wanted someone to help me feel close to God. I wanted this very badly. And Shlomo was clearly close to God. His sexual impulses were, to my way of thinking, immoral, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have his gifts. He had incredible gifts: to make melodies, to sing, to touch hearts. But Shlomo needed help to overcome his addictions. The real tragedy to my mind is that his world-wide Jewish community didn’t hold him accountable for his sex addictions.

Shlomo went down to the restaurant with me but all his sparkle was gone. He had no words of encouragement or wisdom for me. He seemed tired and lonely; remote. I left disappointed once again.

And then the phone calls started. They were about every few weeks, sometimes more frequent and sometimes less. He called from all over the U.S.A, Israel, and South America. The calls were always past midnight, and roused me from deep sleep. He spoke about his sexual attraction to me, and asked me intimate questions about what I was wearing. He spoke about the exotic places he visited and how he’d like to be there with me. His breathing was heavy and labored. The scenario he described which disturbed me the most was when he talked about taking me naked into the mikvah in his community in Israel.

Why didn’t I get angry or hang up? It was the middle of the night and I was fuzzy-headed. I felt uncertain of my own clarity of mind. He kept telling me how special and incredibly spiritual I was and I wanted to believe him. He said he loved me, and he talked often about our getting married. I was lonely and wanted to believe that it was true: that I was special and wise and therefore able to help him mend his ways. Maybe we could be a wonderful, spiritual couple, I thought. I sent him many long loving letters to New York and to his Moshav in Israel. I always expected him to write back, but he never did. I told him over and over again that I needed him to teach me about Judaism. I told him that I needed to be in love with Judaism the way he was. I told him that after years of searching I still felt that I didn’t belong, and I was on the verge of giving up. I told him I was getting attracted to Christianity and that I was even considering being baptized. He said nothing to dissuade me nor did he ever offer me a teaching about Judaism. In fact, since he often spoke of marriage, we laughed about the idea of a rabbi marrying a Christian woman.

I invited Shlomo to stay with me in my home when he next came to Vancouver to give a concert. I told my children that we might have a rabbi staying with us. But when he came to Vancouver he never called or tried to see me. He avoided me, and didn’t even catch my eye at his concert. Finally I knew his love wasn’t sincere, and something was very wrong. I met another Jewish woman who had received similar calls to mine. I spoke to him about it the next time he called. "You need to make amends before you die. It’s not too late to own up to your problems and get help," I told him. He said he agreed with me; that I was right, he did need to do something before it was too late.

I don’t know if Shlomo made any amends to any of the people he hurt. I don’t know how it stands between him and God today. But I do know that the Jewish community let him down, and let down all those whom he hurt. They enabled his sickness to perpetuate itself because he was never called to account. And because of the blind eye that the Jewish community chooses to cast on Shlomo’s sins they choose to ignore those who were hurt, undermine their pain, and isolate them on the fringes.

I said earlier that because of my own suffering I had learned to blot out the truth and focus only on the good. It is a coping mechanism, but it is not living in the real world. The Jewish family has known tremendous suffering, and maybe they have collectively learned to blot out a truth which hurts, which is that Shlomo sexually exploited women. After much therapy I have learned not to blot out the truth, but to see it and let it guide me to good, healthy choices. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have given Shlomo my phone number, or gone to his hotel room, or taken his calls in the night. I wouldn’t have written him letters or believed him when he spoke of marriage. I would have been safe from harm.

I made appointments to see two rabbis about what Shlomo did: one through my sister because she wanted me to get some healing, and one through a friend for the same reason. One rabbi thought it wasn’t very significant. The other was more sympathetic and told me he wouldn’t attend a Carlebach concert anymore. I wrote about what had happened to me and sent an article to the same local Jewish paper in which I had first read his interview. They didn’t want to publicize my experience. Even a woman I shared with at the synagogue I sometimes attended told me to let it go and concentrate on all the good Shlomo had done.

To this day I am very sad that Shlomo wasn’t compelled to offer me any encouragement in my spiritual quest to find my niche within Judaism. It is often said that he would do anything to save one Jewish soul, but he did nothing to save mine. I have been a practising Christian for the past ten years and one thing that comforts me in my church is that when a minister or priest is caught being abusive, the abuse is brought to light and the abuser is held responsible for what he has done.

Reconciliation is only available to those hurt by Shlomo, if Shlomo’s community: the Jewish community, opens their ears to hear the truth. They must find the courage to remove their blinders, and apologize for having needed to believe in Shlomo more than they needed to stand in truth before God.

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