Real Story of My Spiritual Journey to Reform Judaism

Don't Let Haters Detract From Our Unity as a People

nate lavey

By Neshama Carlebach

Published January 03, 2014.
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(JTA) — Over the past two weeks I’ve been both heartened and horrified by the spectrum of response to what, I felt, was a spontaneous and sincere statement of unity and joy — my proclamation of “aliyah” to Reform Judaism, made at the biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism.

I’m honored that the piece originally published in JTA has been printed and reprinted in several languages all over the world, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue to reflect.

On the one hand, I have received messages of love and gratitude and gorgeous expressions of faith from Jews far to the left of where I stand. Similarly, many of my friends from the Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements blessed me for the expansion of my spiritual agenda.

To all those who have supported me on my spiritual journey, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I am humbled and deeply grateful for your sentiments.

However, I would be lying if I did not confess how deeply hurt I have been by the strident, hateful emails, Facebook posts and Internet comments I’ve also received. I tremble to relate that this week I’ve been accused of being a Christian, a Nazi, a “vile shame to my father’s name and legacy,” a “desecrator of all the Torah stands for,” and an evil human being trying to destroy my own people. I’ve been demeaned, harassed and called more terrible names than I dare to repeat.

I’ve read and reread all these messages and did not respond — until now.

Upon reflection, I realize that so much of this is beyond me, beyond the piece I wrote, and simply coming from a place of deep, shattered brokenness, confusion and pain. Clearly, I touched a nerve. But I want to set the record straight because it seems I’ve been misunderstood on many levels.

My father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, was a human being blessed with the strength to be present and inspired by every moment and every person he met. Every soul he encountered was “the deepest,” every celebration was “the highest,” every experience was “the best.” He was genuinely able to embrace and see the good in a way that nobody else could, and from that place his gift was his ability to talk about connecting to a higher power — that is, God.

What I experienced at the Reform biennial, frankly, is the same thing that I always have loved most about my father’s unique way of expressing his Judaism. The biennial’s inclusiveness, striving for unity, love of humanity without judgment, and honest respect for the individual/collective journey of the soul were hallmarks of his approach. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the movement, spoke about the importance of “audacious hospitality” above all else, and these words reflect my own mission in this world.

I would like to believe that I share this mission with my detractors. Aren’t we all trying in our own way to bring meaning, peace and unity to the world?

In my opinion, peak spiritual experiences happen when we are able to connect to something greater than ourselves, bigger than our own limited existences, beyond time and space. What the Jewish people desperately need at this moment is a greater sense of Klal Yisrael — Jewish peoplehood.

At the Reform biennial, I did not have a religious experience, but a community experience: My soul made aliyah to the greater Jewish community, to Am Yisrael. A portal opened and I saw us as one, connected and bound together by common history and purpose.

I’m still the same person I have always been. I still appreciate and follow the ritual I was raised with, still feel profoundly connected to the way I have always practiced my own Judaism. My statement was one of inclusivity. It is tragic to me that it has been misconstrued as a denunciation of the Orthodox world wherein I was raised.

Put another way, at the Reform biennial I had a true “Shlomo moment.” I was blessed to experience the love for Klal Yisrael in a way I could intellectually grasp but frankly had never felt before.

To those whom I have offended — ki va moed: The time has come for us to break down the walls of denominationalism and simply be Jewish. It is time for a new way, a new vision, a new moment for us all.

My song stays the same but my kavanah (intention) is deeper, my eyes are open, my family is larger.

My new recording, “Soul Daughter,” will be released this month. Produced and arranged by Josh Nelson, it features performances by the Broadway cast of “Soul Doctor,” the play about my father’s life that I was blessed to co-create.

As I have been completing my singing for the recording, I feel that I am singing my father’s music from a new, expanded place in my heart, with more tears, vulnerability and longing than I ever was able to feel. As an artist, I thank you for allowing me to access this place in me.

I pray that we will all continue this important conversation, but perhaps with a new level of respect, as brothers and sisters, in the way my father would have want of us.


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