By SAMANTHA FREDA
This week, I met with Rabbi Robert Waxman of B’nai Israel Synagogue, a conservative Jewish congregation tucked back on 26th and Chestnut in downtown Wilmington.
As I arrived, Rabbi Waxman was finishing a lesson in his office, a personal room with overflowing bookshelves and a round table where he meets daily with his bar/bat mitzvah students.
Originally from Akron, Ohio, Rabbi Waxman moved to Wilmington in 1981 with his wife, Barbara, who is now an English professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Soon after, he became the Rabbi at B’nai Israel, a congregation which he told me proudly is 110 years old.
He’s celebrating his 30th anniversary as spiritual leader there this year.
When I asked Rabbi Waxman what he has read lately, he showed me “Holy Beggars: A Journey from Haight Street to Jerusalem” by Aryae Coopersmith. It is a first-person account of the Jewish counter-culture in the late sixties, in specific reference to San Francisco’s House of Love and Prayer, led by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
Carlebach was a musician who traveled internationally, using simple songs to teach the Torah, Judaism and love to people who connected with his message. Young twenty-something’s would come to the house Haight Ashbury for Shabbat or just to listen to Carlebach’s spiritually-focused music.
There is disagreement in the Jewish community concerning Carlebach’s credibility, as he was known to frequently date women much younger than himself, often in the “free love” style of that era.
“There is a lot of music that we use or could use from Shlomo, but the rather sensitive question comes up— how can you sing his compositions if he wasn’t a purist as a person?” Rabbi Waxman said, explaining the deeper issue to me. “In the secular world, we may not care when someone takes advantage of their popularity, but it is different with a man claiming to be a rabbi.”
However, Carlebach is widely considered the foremost Jewish songwriter of his time, with a 40-year career of teaching and storytelling. He promoted a “return to Judaism,” inspiring Jewish youth to embrace their heritage.
Personally, Rabbi Waxman has decided to look past surface actions toward a deeper sentiment.
“I think that it is okay to play his music,” Rabbi Waxman said. “I understand how people are troubled by his choices, and I think it’s not good when someone takes advantage of a powerful position—but no one said he was a saint. He was a man with simple songs. I think sometimes we have to separate the message from the messenger.”