Inside the shul on the hill sits Rabbi Naftali Citron, gold-sprinkled blue yarmulke on his head, tzitzit dangling from his white collared shirt, as he explains what Judaism relates about such tragedies as the coronavirus. “There’s a verse that we say regarding the giving of the Torah,” the rabbi of The Carlebach Shul on the Upper West Side says. “‘There was a cloud on the mountain, and everyone stood from a distance. And Moshe entered into the cloud and there was G-d.’”
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, he continues, “interprets this verse in the following way: he says the cloud represents depression or sadness, and the people who saw the darkness and the sadness went away from the cloud. But Moshe realized that G-d is even in the sadness and went into the sadness and found G-d there.”
Just one text amongst thousands that speaks to a plague like the coronavirus, this quote that the rabbi offers stems from the Jewish tradition but has wisdom that can resonate even with the faithless: someone or something, whether it be G-d or something else entirely, is there, in the smog, hearing the cry.
The United States just reached a grave milestone: 500,000 deaths throughout the country. In New York City, there have been 28,954 deaths to date. It has been about a year since the pandemic began, and it has been one for the ages, a 12-month period that has been something of a purgatory, if not a hell. It’s known by now: the losses of loved ones, the agonizing end of jobs, the eerie silence of the always bopping city. It’s a ringer and everyone is just about through with it. Yet there is light. There remain such places as The Carlebach Shul.
Standing on 79th Street atop a steep slope that overlooks Riverside Park, the shul was given to Rabbi Naphtali Carlebach around 1944 before then being handed over to perhaps the most famous person with that surname: Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Not only a rabbi, the Berlin-born Carlebach was also a songwriter and singer who traveled across the globe with his guitar and his renditions of traditional Jewish songs such as “Pitchu Li” and “Borchi Nafshi,” meeting such legendary musicians as Bob Dylan and Nina Simone.
Perhaps more significantly, Carlebach was a pioneer of the movement known as ba’al teshuva, which is Hebrew for “master of the return” but broadly refers to Jews who become observant after previously being more secular. The rabbi himself reached out to youths who were luckless or ran away from home, providing solace to lost souls.
Positioned beneath a black-and-white portrait of the revered spiritual leader is Rabbi Citron, his great-nephew. A man of nearly fifty with a graying beard and brown eyes that radiate both boss-cool and fatherly warmth, Citron grew up in Berkeley and Los Angeles. He is something of a cherished mystic in New York, the type of individual one spots in a crowded room and alights on. The fact that he is almost disarmingly humble rings of his deep warmth and enlightenment as a rabbi, even though he speaks with the candor of the common man.
Drawn towards the rabbinical path after studying some Hasidic texts in his early teens, the West Coast native came to New Jersey and New York for his smicha (rabbinical ordination) and became the leader of the shul almost twenty years ago. Asked what first compelled him in his early twenties to the ark-like synagogue, which was also headed by Carlebach’s twin brother, Eli Chaim and his wife, Hadassa, Citron says, “I really appreciated who Shlomo Carlebach was so I really wanted to spend time with him. No one replaces anyone else but I do look to certain figures in my life for inspiration. Starting my own family, for instance - my grandfather was that figure and then, to some degree, Shlomo became that figure so I got close to him.”
Although Citron was able to form a tight bond with Carlebach for only a year to a year-and-a-half before his passing in 1994, he remembers him vividly as someone who was “operating on a very deep level.” Wanting to carry his forebear’s energy of joyful prayer forward, the Rabbi has been the benevolent host of countless Sabbath meals over the decades and has kept his great-uncle’s spirit alive in the shul.
Still, the past year, particularly the start, has been deeply challenging for Citron who has answered several calls and conducted the usually filled in-person services mostly online. “This is a test of faith. Faith helps but it is not a pill,” he says. “Part of Judaism is the test. ‘G-d tested Abraham.’ Why would He need to test him? Doesn’t G-d know? And some of the commentaries say that when you overcome a test, that’s when you acquire a stronger and deeper relationship with the thing - that’s important, that you overcame the test.”
As night falls on Manhattan, darkened windows reflecting dirtied snow banks on streets now strangely quiet, “G-d is there,” as the Rabbi says, and the sun will rise from that cloud.
“This is a test of faith. Faith helps but it is not a pill.” Rabbi Naftali Citron