Lilith’s editor in chief Susan Weidman Schneider sent out an email, subject line “and now, Neshama Carlebach weighs in.” She was writing to Managing Editor Naomi Danis and to Sarah Blustain, who reported for Lilith in 1998 about allegations of sexual harassment against famed rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and the response from his daughter—20 years later. “Want to respond?” Susan wrote.
The daughter’s belated response brought up a slew of memories about what it was like to report on sexual harassment before #MeToo, in a community that only now is beginning to reckon with the dark side of its spiritual leader.
I cannot tell you how this brings me back, Susan.
In 1997 a few women—I mean a very few; were there three or four of us?—who mostly worked around a dark wooden table in a small office in New York, started to hear from women talking about Shlomo Carlebach’s unwanted sexual advances. We sat with this information for days, weeks, and with the fact of his beloved-ness in the Jewish community. I remember it as a physical weight, knowing and resisting knowing, and being afraid. At some point, I remember someone saying, maybe it was me, “but how can we not tell this story?” So we did.
The reporting was slow, the writing painful, every word weighing his spiritual legacy against a less rosy one. There was a sentence we reported that seemed an admission. Carlebach to a woman who confronted him: “Oy, this needs such a fixing.” This was told to us by a woman, not by Carlebach himself, who by then was long gone. I remember my own nausea as we considered that sentence, sourced it, knowing what it would mean to have this (almost) in his own voice. The family opposed us. They would not comment.
On the eve of publication, word went out in the Carlebach community: This must be stopped. I cannot describe fully what it was like in that office, four rooms, a pro-bono lawyer blessedly taking our calls, as the phone started to ring, all day and night. Beseeching us against lashon hara, speaking ill of the dead. Telling us this couldn’t be, or shouldn’t be. We stopped answering the phone and listened to the messages pile up on the answering machine. Hours and hours of calls, and we few in the office, listening and working both. I remember the sun went down. Eventually we shut off the phone and finished.
And now I read it again, this time written by his own daughter, who 20 years later describes the scene we worked so hard to pin down. “Oy this needs such a fixing.” This time not denied. Did she hear it herself? It’s not clear. It is vindicating but also crushing to see how easily this becomes truth, when I remember how hard it was, and how many said it was false, both before and after publication.
We were doing then what so many have done now—finding truth in multiple voices when a single voice would not be enough. But that was before #MeToo made the job of speaking up — and of reporting on such accusations—a bit easier. And it was before Noreen Malone and New York Magazine breathtakingly put 35 women on the cover talking about a different powerful man and calling out “The Culture That Wouldn’t Listen.” Neshama Carlebach writes ”My sisters, I hear you.” Keep listening.
FROM SARAH, LATER:
What I want to add is implied: that the way #MeToo has made it easier does not take away from how hard it was, and is, to go up against power and culture. Although I am relieved that the way is smoother now, that does not erase the silencing, of us as feminists and journalists least of all, and of the victims the most.
Thank you so much for this, Sarah. I don’t think we’ve ever gone public with all those details, have we?
It’s surprising to me how easily we can re-enter the mood of those weeks before Lilith published your brave account.
The threats and the phone calls from those who would stop the publication were frightening. We monitored all incoming calls. But we did still answer knocks at the door to our small office, and Naomi remembers opening the door to a man in a wheelchair, a Carlebach partisan, who had come to the office to beg us not to publish. I stood by, horrified to realize that people were still held in thrall to his memory.
And then there was the phone call I did pick up—from a Carlebach family member—urging us not to publish and telling me not to believe the accusations; that the women speaking out were unreliable; that the rabbi attracted “garbage people” who were unstable; that their stories should not be heeded. And from another source, threats of a lawsuit against Lilith for impeding the ability of people to earn money from his music.
One man reached me on my home line in Washington late in the evening to threaten that Shlomo Carlebach would punish me from “up there” in the heavens if the magazine went ahead with the story. I began to feel queasy. My husband, seeing me blanch, had to remind me that “Lilith’s mission is not just to publish Rosh Hodesh rituals.”
Sarah, when I came into the office the next day and shared this, you were the one who said “How can we not tell this story?” And then you added, I remember vividly, “We told the women who came forward that we would publish their experiences. We have an obligation to them” not to turn away.
The aftermath of publication was hard as we struggled against more attacks, but it also bought more stories forward, and with each one we felt justified in our decision to publish, also grimly aware of the even greater scope of the misconduct. There were myriad phone calls and (sometimes) anonymous letters. One stands out in my mind, from a woman who had been a 12-year old girl at a Jewish summer camp where Carlebach was invited for Shabbat. Her group was told that a famous and wonderful rabbi would be visiting — and that the girls must be careful not to find themselves alone with him. The woman contacting Lilith was outraged on behalf of her younger self. Can you imagine asking us to make sure we avoided being alone with him? Why did the camp directors invite him if they knew this?
The most recent direct communication we had about Carlebach came this fall. A man who said he’s now in his 80s phoned Lilith’s office to say he has been feeling guilty all these years, that he’d known about Carlebach’s behavior toward women and had been a bystander, enabling the misconduct because he’d never, til now, spoken out against it.
Yes, Susan, I still get Facebook messages from people sometimes. Someone wrote me in 2013, 15 years after the piece, saying that she wanted to add her name to the list of people he had called and touched. Like others, she said she hadn’t felt she could call him out on his behavior — a dynamic that persisted well past his death.
AND FROM NAOMI:
I remember approaching people I respected, my rabbi, my sisters, to ask what they thought of the ethical dilemma in reporting allegations of misdeeds by a dead person who couldn’t respond or defend himself.
To me, a compelling reason for Lilith to cover the story was that the women who were coming to us were ready to go to the secular press with the story if it was not going to be covered in the Jewish media. I felt sure Lilith could handle the story with more nuance, complexity and, perhaps most importantly, more compassion than anyone else. Sure enough, Sarah’s expose in Lilith made news. I remember the disapproval of some in the Jewish world that we had written ill of a dead person. And I remember a letter to the editor of New York’s Jewish Week excoriating, in the writer’s words, the “lesbian, man-hating” editors of the Lilith magazine—which kind of made us giggle. We were sorely in need of a smile in those heavy-hearted days. In the quarterly issue that followed Sarah’s article, we ran five pages of letters; this was most unusual for us, but much in keeping with Lilith’s mission of publishing voices that too often are not allowed to be heard.