A Tribute to My First Rabbi

Today is the yahrtzeit of my first rabbi, Rabbi Eliyahu Chaim Carlebach zt”l. Many people know of Reb Elya’s famous twin brother, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, zt”l. In fact, I also found Reb Elya through Reb Shlomo’s reputation, but it is Reb Elya who I will always consider my first rabbi.

Reb Elya and Reb Shlomo were born in Vienna in the late 1920’s to a prominent and wealthy rabbinic family. Their father, Rabbi Naftali Carlebach, moved the family to Germany for the sake of his sons’ education, but by the 1930s, they emigrated to America, early enough to have escaped the war. Rabbi Naftali Carlebach established a shul on West 79th Street in Manhattan which is now run by his great-grandson, Reb Elya’s grandson, Rabbi Naftali Citron.

Rabbi Naftali Carlebach was not Chassidish, but when his sons grew older, they became close to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Reb Elya married the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s first cousin, Hadasa, may Hashem bless her with a long and healthy life. They had children and he established his own shul in Staten Island. He became an expert on all types of Chassidus and published an encyclopedia of Chassidus, respected in many different kehillos. I like to think that his tefillos helped bring me to my current point in life, a chassidista of the Stoliner Rebbe.

Reb Shlomo, who was the older twin, succeeded his father as rov of the 79th Street shul, but at some point, the brothers began to run it jointly. They used to alternate Shabbosim; one Shabbos would be led by Reb Shlomo, the next by Reb Elya, and when Reb Shlomo was touring, Reb Elya led for many weeks in a row. Therefore, when I went to the shul looking for Reb Shlomo, I met Reb Elya “by accident.”

I had first heard of Reb Shlomo Carlebach in the East Village, of all places. Skipping over the details, I was a cosmically confused teenager, dabbling in lefty politics and astrology. I went to the shul at 79th Street, and had a memorable experience, but nothing that immediately changed my life. It wasn’t until I’d spent a few years in college getting even more cosmically confused that I finally decided to go check out the Carlebach shul again.

I was surprised that Reb Shlomo wasn’t there, but in many ways Reb Elya was even more welcoming. He heartily invited me to the seudah, and after it, the Rebbetzin told me I could stay upstairs and read for the afternoon. Unfortunately, I took the subway home that afternoon, but I liked the experience enough that I went back for another Shabbos shortly thereafter. Reb Elya welcomed me again, saying he was very happy to see me. So I kept going back, and as I got to know him better, I began to espouse some of the views I’d picked up in college and in political meetings. And the fact that I could do so is the greatest tribute to Reb Elya. No matter how far I had strayed, no matter what outrageous view came out of my mouth, Reb Elya Chaim always made me feel welcome and loved.

Reb Eliyahu Chaim Carlebach, may the memory of this tzaddik be a blessing, left this world right before Shabbos, in March 1990. The congregation was gathered for Shabbos, waiting to see him when they told us. That Shabbos, we sang his favorite songs, told over his teachings, and shared memories. It was a hard, but healing Shabbos. People broke down in tears at different times. I remember watching my own teardrops fall on the tablecloth while some stranger looked at me sympathetically. I must have been crying harder than I realized.

One phrase people attributed to Reb Elya in their stories was, “Just be normal.” He had never actually said that phrase to me, but it succinctly summed up the message he had been conveying to me throughout the entire year of our acquaintance. Normalcy was a good value for me to strive for. It certainly wasn’t a value in hippiedom or leftism, and after years of identification with both those worldviews, I certainly was not my normal self.

After the loss of a dear authority figure, it is very common that the young and bereft resolve to follow the path of the deceased more devotedly. How else can they connect with the niftar, the person who left this world? The person is gone in body, so the connection must be on a purely spiritual plane. I’ve been told that the Tanya says that a tzaddik accomplishes more in this world when he leaves it because then he is not encumbered by physicality. I don’t claim to understand how that works, but I think that the affect on the bereft which I described must be part of it. As Reb Shlomo used to say, “What do I know?”

May Reb Elya be a mailetz yoshur for klal Yisroel. Oh, how I miss him!

12 comments on “A Tribute to My First Rabbi



  2. Eliahu Gal-Or!

    Remember me? You gave me one of my earliest Shabbos experiences! You were taking me to some friends of yours in Pennsylvania and on the train, you decided we’d never make it in time, so we got off and went right back to 79th Street. It made such an impression on me. It showed me just how serious the business of not traveling on Shabbos is.

    So you’re in Jerusalem now? Does that mean Luciano’s at the moshav is no longer open?

  3. Shalom uBeracha,

    I too had the privilege of spending some Shabbatot at the W79th St. Shul when Reb Elya Chaim was there and Reb Shlomo finding Jewish souls to lead back home in some far flung corner of the planet; besides the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and of course Shlomo, I never met anyone else like Reb Elya Chaim who not only saw into my deepest depths, but revealed their contents to me and managed in very few words to steer my neshama onto its unique healing path.

    And of course, watching Rebbetzin Hadassah prepare her Guinness Book level corned beef, and savoring more that my fair share because, well, I could not help it, helped my artistic success in the food business, by proving that if you put enough love into whatever art you are practicing at the moment, you are bound to bring geula closer…

    If you visit Jerusalem, or better still, if you finally make Aliya (after 30 years I haven’t yet regretted it a single day!) and you are in the neighborhood, you will find Reb Elya Chaim’s grave at the extreme left of Reb Shlomo’s, a few rows beyond in in the Har haMenuchot Cemetery; bring an extra rock in your pocket and say a perek Tehillim there too.

    When back in town, please come share your stories and play Jewish Geography with me at “Beit Midrash Ohel Hana” on Rehov Ezrat Israel 5 (the first little lane past Strauss on Yafo going towards Davidka) and have a glass of wine leYiluy Nishmatam; more details at .

    Wishing you all a bright Hodesh Nisan and a Pesach Kasher veSameach, with lots of love,

    Eliahu Gal-Or
    AKA: “Luciano”
    one of the Moshav’s founders from the House of Love and Prayer, of which Ohel Hana is, after J.A.G.U.A.R., the latest embodiment.

  4. Kressel – re: names and being R. Shlomo’s twin. I know a woman who used to frequent the ‘Carlebach shul’. She told me a story about when R. Elya was giving a shiur once, he asked one of the attendees – a ‘Carlebach’ chosid – his name. As she put it, the name was something akin to ‘Rainbow Rising over Israel’, but Hebrew of course. She says he was heard to mutter, ‘Baruch Hashem I was born with him or else he might have named me too!’

  5. It is truly wonderful to read all this about my father.
    My father was a strong believer in everyone being master of themselves. With Hashem guiding us, we have no excuse for stupidity or even depression. He believed that we can all reach the top. He often told us “just be smart”. And, if anyone ever dared to hurt my feelings, he would say to me “You let that cockroach crawling on the floor have control over you?”
    He was a magnificent father and terrific grandfather, too. Fortunately he lived to see 10 of the many grandchildren born. The stories are being relayed to the great grandchildren as well.
    Love to all my holy brothers and sisters,
    Sheina Carlebach Berkowitz

  6. Baruch Hashem that you found your way to where you are today. In shamayim, Reb Elya (and many others) are shlepping nachas

  7. Rabbi Seif,

    I think one of the reasons they became Chassidish was because one of the melamdim their father engaged for them was a Chossid. Then they came to America, where I suppose more mixing of frum streams went on.


    Thank you so much for your links. The bit about his learning to resist insults is something he told over to others many times later in life. He certainly told it to me.

    Also, it’s absolutely true that he didn’t like to use English names. But he always called me “Karen” because I never would tell him my Yiddish name was “Kressel.” Back then, I wanted to change it to the Hebrew “Keren,” but he wouldn’t use it.


    Surely you must have had exceptional mentors on your journey as well!

  8. Your post was beautiful and made me jealous! You are lucky to have had such a mentor.

  9. Very nice tribute to a truly wonderful person! For more interesting anecdotes about him, see:
    and then look under 26 Adar for the “Rav of Hillside”.
    I believe in their high school years, both Carlebach brothers [they also have an older sister] went to Torah VoDaas. Reb Shlomo went on to Lakewood, then Chabad, he received his semicha from Rav Hutner of Chaim Berlin. I know that Reb Eli Chaim was close for most of his years to Bobov, the Chassidus and the Rebbe, I don’t know if he learned in their yeshiva though.
    It should not surprise us that people left the German “Yekke” traditions for those of Chassidus. I have a ggod friend who is from such a household who is a fervent Modzitzer Chassid, although he maintains some of his German minhagim as well. In the 20th and 21st Centuries, there is plenty of “crossovers” amongst the various traditions – Sefardim who have become Lubavitchers or Breslovers [in Uman on Rosh Hashana, there’s a Carlebach, Sefardi, Teimani minyan, in addition to the regular Breslov one], etc.
    May Reb Elya Chaim’s merits protect us all!

  10. I never knew Shlomo Carlebach had a twin brother. I find it interesting that both brothers picked a derech that was not their original German derech. It’s especially noteworthy because German Jews are usually so adamant to stick to their German customs.

  11. In their early years, I think their father engaged private melamdim, and I don’t really know what happened when they came to America.

  12. Kressel,
    Yashar Koach. His neshama should have an aliya. Do you know where he learned?

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