Debbie Friedman probably would have liked her funeral. The legendary singer and composer who injected spirituality and healing into liturgical pieces and whose music gave new life to the words of the prayers was humble and modest enough to have wondered what all the fuss was about, according to Rabbi Heidi Cohen, who officiated at the funeral at Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana.
Still, the diminutive woman with the big guitar and the powerful sense of ruach (spirit) would have appreciated the idea that more than 1,000 people gathered there were grieving for her through linking arms and singing her music, even sending her off with her own Tefilat Haderet (“May we be blessed as we go on our way…”). At the same time, more than 7,000 people were watching on streaming video. Thousands more watched later and held services of their own for a cultural icon who transformed the experience of prayer and community for the generations of Jews who have been listening to and singing along with Friedman’s music in their synagogues and camps and on her 20 CDs since the 1970s. Surprisingly, the only television coverage of her death was on PBS.
Friedman, who had been living in Orange County for a year, passed away January 9 at the age of 59. “She wove music and the bonds of synagogue life together, and now we weave a tapestry of memory that will be completed over time by many hands, by each weaver who shared her life,” Rabbi Cohen said.
It was Friedman’s dream to see people come together to heal the body and the spirit, according to her sister, Cheryl. She put substance over form to open doors to people’s hearts.
“Debbie Friedman understood that music is the meaning for something higher, a way to stretch the spiritual muscles,” said Rabbi Stuart Kelman, founding rabbi of Congregation Netviot Shalom in Berkeley. “She had the ability to make room for every neshamah (soul) that was there. She struggled with her body, but her soul remains for eternity.”
Jerry Kaye, director of the Olin-Sang-Ruby Institute of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, where Friedman got her start as a song leader, related that Friedman liked to teach songs to people and then get them to sing along. At the URJ Biennial in San Diego in 2007, 6,000 people who knew that she was ailing sang Friedman’s most famous composition, the “Mi Sheberach” prayer for healing to her before she could sing. “She wiped away her tears and then sang to and with us,” he said.
Rabbi Richard Levy, rabbi of campus synagogue and director of spiritual growth at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said that Friedman “listened, spoke gently, tried to understand each neshama and understood that the neshama can be imprisoned in one’s body or trapped in self-doubt.” Friedman, who had been teaching at the Reform seminary since 2007, “tried to liberate the students’ neshamas gently and helped them to find their own voices,” he added.
Debbie Friedman helped several generations to find their voice, those of us who found it radical – and refreshing – to weave folk music accompanied by a guitar into our liturgy when we first heard of her and those who have had the pleasure of taking it for granted ever since. That’s why it’s so hard to let her go.
But, as Rabbi Levy said, “As long as Jewish music is sung, and we work for peace and justice, Debbie Friedman will be standing by our side.”
A number of years ago, Debbie established the Renewal of Spirit Foundation with the goal of manifesting her life’s work. Now, donations to the Renewal of Spirit Foundation will enable the projects that Debbie was working on at the time of her death to be completed and support future projects reflecting her passions and commitments. In a note to her fans on her website, Debbie wrote, “Remember, out of what emerges from life’s painful challenges will come our healing.”
Donations may be made online at www.debbiefriedman.com or sent to:
Renewal of Spirit Foundation
c/o Selwyn Gerber, CPA
Gerber & Co.
1880 Century Park East
Los Angeles, CA 90067-1600