Jewish musical muse Debbie Friedman dies

I got to interview Debbie Friedman in 2004 at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, just before she led a healing service with Rabbi Richard Jacobs.

It was one of those interviews you never forget.

I was asking her about her profound influence on the lives of many Jews. She had started writing Jewish music, often putting prayers to music, decades before. She wrote deeply moving compositions that stay with you. Many were aimed at helping people reconnect with their spirituality or to help people deal with suffering and pain.

When I asked her about the impact of her music on so many lives, she couldn’t find the words to describe her relationship with her fans. She seemed to still be trying to come to terms with it. She started to tell me — softly — about families that had placed tapes of her music in the caskets of children who had died from disease or accidents. But her voice began to crack and she momentarily broke down, overcome by her experiences.

I hardly knew what to say.

I’ve thought about this many times — as well as the healing service that she led afterward. One could see and hear the depth of her feeling come through in her music.

I thought about it again just before after reading that Friedman died yesterday. She had been suffering from multiple sclerosis and was fight pneumonia in a California hospital.

Friedman, although largely unknown outside the Jewish world, was the muse of Reform Judaism. But her compositions also became increasingly popular in the Conservative community. She was often compared to Joan Baez because she sounded a bit like her and even looked a bit like her.

She told me that she had decided long ago to adapt a healing prayer to music for a friend who was going through a difficult time. That composition, “Mi Shebeirach (The One Who Blessed),” has remained her most famous work.

“When I saw the way people responded to this prayer, I knew there was this need for people to deal with illness or whatever crisis is going on in their lives,” she told me. “It’s taken on a life of its own since then.”

Rabbi Jacobs told me then that everyone knew Friedman had a gift when she started singing at Jewish summer camps in California.

“All these kids from the San Fernando Valley were able to discover things within themselves that they didn’t know were there,” he said.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform movement, said this in a statement: “Debbie Friedman was an extraordinary treasure of our movement and an individual of great influence. Twenty-five years ago, North American Jews had forgotten how to sing. Debbie reminded us how to sing, she taught us how to sing. She gave us the vehicles that enabled us to sing. Then she impacted our youth and our camps and, ultimately, from there she impacted our synagogues. What happens in the synagogues of Reform Judaism today — the voices of song — are in large measure due to the insight, brilliance and influence of Debbie Friedman.”

Many congregations will mourn Friedman this week, no doubt, as if she was one of their own.

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Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.