Shlomo Carlebach’s 25th yahrzeit is upon us. Like every year, there will be gatherings celebrating Shlomo’s memory, cherishing his teachings, his songs and his positive impact. There will also be a surrounding chorus of protests and anger. Loud will be the annual cry from those who condemn Shlomo as a sexual offender; claiming his songs and teachings need be shunned. In turn, many followers of Shlomo will reciprocate with their own hurt, anger and denial of the stories of abuse.
These two extremes will duel it out. The more the one side will deny, the louder the other side will cry. The louder the other side will cry, the more the opposite side will silence. It will all be highly divisive, no doubt, as it has been for literally decades.
But what if it doesn’t have to be? What if, after a quarter century we could approach this inexorable issue differently; with less polarization and more education, with less protest and more compassion? What if we could use this yahrzeit as an opportunity for healing and truly embodying the spirit of hesed and emet that our tradition teaches and that Shlomo at his best exemplified?
Below is a proposed pathway through the tangle of this heart-wrenching issue. A path that at once honors Shlomo’s unique contribution to the Jewish world, at the same time as it mourns his harmful actions. A path that offers healing to the people he hurt as well as compassion for his committed followers. A path that strives to create consciousness on both sides of the divide.
On a Personal Note: I am sharing this article from a place of great trepidation and deep prayer.
Shlomo’s teachings and music have literally transformed and uplifted my life. But more than by his teachings, my life has been transformed and uplifted by his students. I share this article in honor of my friends, teachers and heroes within the Shlomo hevra.
I recognize that many of you may disagree with much of what is written here. I imagine you may be hurt or angered, or feel vastly misunderstood and misrepresented. I hope that you can hear the love, care and respect that is beneath each word shared.
I place these words at your feet and pray they can be healing.
A Path of Healing:
Shlomo’s legacy is not just his songs and teachings, it also includes the very conundrum of sexual abuse that is currently being wrestled through. This is perhaps one of the greatest hidden gifts of Shlomo’s legacy – a curriculum in evolving consciousness. It is a complex curriculum designed for our refinement and growth. It is teaching us the necessity of Integration.
It would be an immense loss to the Jewish people and the world to reject the brilliance of Shlomo’s light because of his shadow. His complex contribution requires us to grapple with the subtleties of leadership and sexuality; of masculinity and femininity; of psychological shadow and light. As we traverse our way forward we must hold complexity with discernment; no longer polarizing in dissent, but crafting radical integration and forging deeper connection.
This curriculum is being worked through by the dedicated truth-seeking of his followers as well as his critics, by the Jewish world at large in tandem with the strivings of the entire globe. May integration and healing prevail.
Step #1: Willingness to Listen – As trite as it may sound, the first step to healing is for each side to access a willingness to move out of their position to hear the other side.
To those within the hevra who deny the validity of the abuse stories – I want to adjure you to open up your heart to hear that there are real stories of abuse out there. In the last year I heard first-hand accounts of sexual abuse from women who were frightened teens at the time. These are not fabricated tales. They are real and need to be heard with immense compassion. I adjure you to read through the material below to understand the psychology of abuse and the need to hear & honor the stories of sexual misconduct by Shlomo.
To those ‘protestors’ who are steeped in anger and distrustat those who chose to celebrate Shlomo’s memory – I adjure you to also be flexible to move from your position. It is crucial to realize that the Shlomo hevra is still – even decades after his death – engaged in processing a trauma; the trauma of sexual misconduct at the hands of its spiritual leader. Psychological studies have shown that the impact of such sexual misconduct is felt not only by the victims but also by the spiritual community – which is considered a ‘secondary victim’ of the abuse. Just as you would treat one of the primary victims with compassion, so too please treat hevra members with the respect, understanding and compassion they deserve.
Please read the material below to understand the complexity that Shlomo’s followers are grappling with. It is crucial to understand the magnitude of Shlomo’s positive impact on their lives – not to mention on the Jewish world as a whole. Strive for understanding the ways in which Shlomo brought immense gifts of healing and light – gifts that hevra members cherish and find legitimately worth celebrating. The recognition of Shlomo’s positive gifts will go far in creating the integration needed for the healing process to progress.
Step #2 – Getting Educated: Understanding the Stages of Grief
Unfortunately, sexual abuse at the hands of a spiritual leader is not a new topic. It has been studied and worked with for decades. Fortunately, we have the opportunity to learn from those seasoned psychological healing models and to take this trauma to the next stage of its healing for the sake of everyone impacted.
One of the core findings in the literature around sexual abuse by a spiritual leader reveals that the community itself is considered a secondary victim; suffering its own trauma. As such, its members feel intense conflicting emotions. They may feel disbelief at the same time as betrayal; fear as well as fury. Other emotions include shock, sadness, embarrassment, vulnerability, to name a few.
Some will have intense anger towards the victim; some towards the perpetrator. There is very often denial or minimization of the problem and division in the community. Members may lose confidence in their leadership and face a loss of credibility in the wider community and a sense of shame in the face of the public.
The path of healing from this type of trauma has been likened to the phases of grief as outlined by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. These well-known phases have been found to be reflective of the process that all spiritual communities go through when torn by their leader’s sexual misconduct. Understanding the stages in the grief model below is crucial as the community deals with the feelings, reactions and ways of coping with the stories of abuse.
Phases of Grief:
Denial: Individuals disbelieve the allegations. Denial provides emotional protection from information that is too painful to absorb.
Anger: As denial becomes difficult to maintain, people become angry. Anger, at this stage, is often expressed not toward the offender, but at the victim or those bringing the allegations forward, because it is still too painful to acknowledge betrayal by the offender.
Bargaining: The community negotiates with the offending leader, setting conditions for accountability. (Given that Shlomo is gone, this is a process that is being worked through within the hevra itself, its leadership and those protesting against Shlomo. The divisiveness that comes up around the yahrzeit is itself is a type of ‘negotiating/bargaining’ between the Shlomo hevra/leadership and the protesters who are calling for an accountability from those who have been engaged in silencing or denial .)
Depression: This is a time when people have the capacity to feel at a deeper and non-reactive level. There may be resistance to and fear of the depression stage, but if the community is open to this phase, it is an invaluable portal to insight, recovery and eventually greater wisdom.
Acceptance: People come to their own understanding and sense of peace regarding the misconduct. There is agreement that the community at large has suffered and there can be a renewed commitment and sense of connection. There can be acceptance of the abuse stories and an integration of both the negatives and positives of the spiritual leader and their memories with them.
Much of the current consciousness around this issue is reflective of Stages 1 and 2 of Grief – Denial and Anger. There is often denial of the severity of Shlomo’s abuses as well as anger towards the victims and their advocates. Simultaneously, there is also intense anger from the other side – anger towards Shlomo and his followers who celebrate him. The protestors also exhibit denial about Shlomo’s positive contributions.
It is crucial to remember that these phases are fluid and the process is not linear. Individuals move through them at their own pace, in their own way. They may move back and forth between stages. Often times they may be in more than one stage simultaneously.
Step #3: Breaking the Catch 22
There is a tricky Catch 22 happening that has kept the healing process from moving forward. The Catch 22 is that the more severe abuse stories have not yet fully been shared in a way that is considered substantive enough (ie victims are terrified & unwilling to share in any organized or public way). Thus most members of the hevra simply still don’t know the severity of the stories. The main reason that ‘full sharing’ has not happened is because in the past when there was sharing it was met with disbelief, denial, rebuke and even fury by hevra members. Claims the stories are ‘unsubstantiated’ have defined the current and persistent climate of denial. They have contributed to a long-term silence born of fear.
To quote a victim, “We only have what to lose by speaking up. I would be disowned by my family. I simply can not do it.” Too many victims have been shamed when they spoke of their experiences. Of course they are resistant to a full public sharing.
This Cath 22 of silence is a text-book expression of what happens within communities that suffer this precise type of abuse. It is understandable that the denials have occurred. It is a result of the abuse itself, not an evil impulse on the side of the community members engaged in it. And yet, it also needs to be acknowledged with regret and moved beyond.
To end this Catch 22 one side has to give in. Either the victims need to step up and share more loudly their stories…or the hevra members who have denied need to step up and believe more deeply the stories – even without the ‘substantiated’ public sharing they so require.
Someone has to break the stalemate…and that someone should not have to be the victims who have first been hurt and then shamed, and who have so much to lose.
Only once the Catch 22 is broken and a space has been made for compassionate hearing, will victims feel safe to come forward to share their stories in a more public manner.
Step #4 – Justice-Making
Once the environment has shifted to one of belief then the stories can be shared (via proxy as necessary) and the healing progress can begin in earnest.
Here we can turn to a helpful model created by the FaithTrust Institute in Seattle. FaithTrust has worked at response and prevention of clergy sexual misconduct for over 30 years. In listening to hundreds of survivors, the staff at FaithTrust began to realize that the elements required for healing fell into seven categories:
1. Truth-telling: To give the victim/survivor the chance to tell their story.
2. Acknowledgement: To give a response to the victim/survivor, by someone who matters to them. This person stands beside them as an advocate, and can say, for example, “What he did to you was wrong.”
3. Compassion: To suffer with the victim/survivor – and not pass by.
4. Protection of the vulnerable: To do everything possible to ensure that these types of abuses do not continue within the community and at large.
5. Accountability for the offender: To call the offender to account (While this is clearly not possible with Shlomo, it is possible for the ‘disbelievers’ within the hevra to take accountability. Little of this work is about ‘Shlomo then…’, it is rather about ‘deniers now’).
6. Restitution to the survivor: To give material compensation to the survivor for the cost of the harm done.(Again, with Shlomo gone, and 25 years later, this is not likely unless there were to be private donors who were moved to assist in payment for therapeutic services, etc. Certainly a worthy act of tzedakah if someone should take that up.)
7. Vindication for the survivor: To set the survivor free and restore them to the community.
(Just knowing that they are believed will be immensely healing for the women involved.)
Step #5: Leadership Articulating and Enacting a Moral Path Forward
The hevra’s leadership is called to be an instrument of healing in this situation. It is called to stand with those who are hurting, and to seek justice within the community and in society at large.
The leadership can further usher forward a truth-sharing in a receptive environment that will allow the victims to be heard in a healing manner, as well as allow for the hevra to come to terms with the impact of these stories on their lives so that the community can proceed to the next stages – of mourning, reckoning, taking accountability and finally acceptance and renewal.
The Good News: Progress is Already Being Made
Thankfully Steps 4 & 5 of the healing are already happening in quiet and important ways. Just as there are many still in the early stages of grief there are a significant number of those who are reaching for Stage 5.
I am happy to share with you that this process of hearing has already been happening by select leaders and members of the Shlomo hevra. Hevra members are hearing the stories and holding them with care. It is tremendous work that is being done, largely behind the scenes. It is slow and sensitive work. Many of these leaders are doing what Shlomo didn’t have the chance to do in his lifetime – making amends. There is also important movement happening in terms of creating Codes of Ethics and ways to institutionalize education around sexual issues and spiritual leadership.
Movement is happening. And we can all contribute to that movement forward.
As the culture around this issue continues to evolve, this work will be brought to light more and more. May this yahrzeit be one where the healing process takes a quantum leap forward; where all sides chose compassionate listening in the place of dissent.
Fortune, Marie M. Responding to Clergy Misconduct: A Handbook, FaithTrust Institute, 2009.
Patricia Liberty. “Grief and Loss: Dealing with Feelings,” in When a Congregation is Betrayed, Responding to Clergy Misconduct, Beth Ann Gaede, ed. The Alban Institute, 2006, p. 40-45. 26 27
Larry Graham “Healing the Congregation,” Conciliation Quarterly, “Pastoral Sexual Misconduct: The Church’s Response,” (Spring, 1991), p. 2-4, at: http://us.mcc.org/programs/peacebuilding/resources/print/ conciliationquarterly1993-91.
Brubaker, David. “Not in our Family! When the Organizational Family Turns Incestuous,” Paper presented at the National Conference on Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution, June 6, 1991.
Cooper-White, Pamela. “Soul-Stealing: Power Relations in Pastoral Sexual Abuse,” Christian Century, (February 20, 1991) p. 198.
Peter Rutter, “Sex in the Forbidden Zone”. p. 107-110.