A video that explores what to say to a mourner. Of particular significance for me since my father Ken Kipnes died.
The rabbis and cantor of Congregation Or Ami sent this letter about sexual violence to our adult congregants, our 9th-12th graders, recent high school graduates (18-22 year olds), and our faculty. We also sent a note to parents of 7th-12th graders with suggestions on conversations with their children.
Alden Solovy, a gifted liturgist, wrote a new prayer to be said upon receiving a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or Dementia. As with all his prayers, it is heartfelt and beautifully written. His work is available on his To Bend Light, an overwhelming collection of poems for today.
I share this prayer with you here, in memory of my grandma Esther Kipnes who died many years ago from this horrible disease. I shared her story in Broken Fragments: Jewish Experiences of Alzheimer’s Disease through Diagnosis, Adaptation, and Moving On (Doug Kohn, editor, URJ Press).
Diagnosis with Alzheimer’s or Dementia
I am told,
In stages I will lose my words,
My ability to care for myself,
My connection with my family,
My connection with myself.
G-d of compassion,
Stand with me in the days ahead.
I am [frightened/angry/sad /confused/defiant][add a description of your emotions].
Grant me time to remain
Mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally present
For my family,
For my friends,
And for myself.
Grant healing power to my treatments
To keep this disease at bay.
Give my physicians knowledge and insight
And my caregivers skill and perseverance.
Grant scientists and researchers tools and understanding
To develop new treatments,
Speedily, in our day.
I need Your care,
And your loving hand.
G-d of old,
You are my Rock and Redeemer.
© 2013 Alden Solovy and www.tobendlight.com. All rights reserved.
Please consider purchasing Alden’s new book, Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing.
We all need help sometimes – The Ezra Network is now here to help. “Ezra” means help in Hebrew. When it’s easy to get, that mean everything!
If you’re facing economic problems or living with the challenge of helping an aging parent or a teen in trouble, you’re not alone. Now, here at our synagogue, you can get help with financial assistance and government program eligibility, access to one-on-one sessions with a social worker, legal counselor or job counselor, as well as referrals for other services and information about upcoming workshops. It’s all there for you – in private – and it’s free.
Contact one of our Ezra Network professionals today:
- Social Worker: Elenna King – (818) 854-9760 – [email protected]
- Job Counselor: Stuart Fried – (818) 577-1347 – [email protected]
- Legal Counselor: Jessica Kronstadt – (323) 549-5827 – [email protected]
These services are available for Congregation Or Ami members, guests and the general community. For maps, directions, and a listing of other resources available in the community, please visit www.JewishLA.org/Ezra.
Working with synagogues, The Ezra Network is an initiative of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles in partnership with Jewish Family Service, Bet Tzedek Legal Services and Jewish Vocational Service. The Ezra Network is funded by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
Our Biblical prophets worried about people who lived on the margins of society. With fiery exhortations, Isaiah, Amos and Micah implored ancient Israelites to take care of those who need help to take care of themselves. They spoke of God’s demand that we break down walls of silence and invite those on the margins into the center.
The orphan became the responsibility of the community, because who else would take care of parentless B’nai Yisrael, children of Israel? The widow, living when society did not legislate many rights for women, became the responsibility of her father, and by extension, the entire patriarchal community. The stranger – either an Israelite from another community or a righteous gentile who threw in his or her lot with the Israelites for times of plenty and scarcity – gained the community’s support just as did any of the B’nai Yisrael.
Were the Prophets Alive Today…
Biblical prophets, were they alive today, might be take note of how far we have come in our pursuit of economic justice – through social policy, legislation and changes in ideology – to help the stranger (the immigrant), the widow (and women in general) and the orphan (children in our midst). These very same prophets would cry out about many remaining injustices, including discrimination (and racism) against immigrants; inadequate care for victims of abuse, incest and rape; and poor conditions in our foster care systems.
I also suspect that were they alive today, these mouthpieces of the Divine would turn their bullhorns to condemn a whole different categories of social injustice. They would shine the light of social critique on communities of caring – like synagogues, churches, mosques, schools, professional organizations and bowling leagues – to observe how they treat people living on the social margins. And everyone, including those who style themselves as being the embodiment of the “Light of God’s People” (as Congregation Or Ami’s name claims), would find the light of Divine judgment illuminating their own actions.
But who are the people who today live on the margins of our society? Who among our Or Ami membership wonder, because of the character of their lives and struggles, whether they are truly accepted into our kehilla kedusha (our holy community)? As it turns out, many people, including people struggling with depression, mental illness, and addiction, and those who are living through the wrenching pain of divorce.
Welcome to the Hidden World of the Rabbi’s Office
Through its doors, protected by national laws guaranteeing the sanctity and privacy of “clergy-congregant privilege,” congregants walk daily to share the secrets of their souls. Assured that they can pour out their hearts without being judged, they acknowledge daily the worry that if people really knew what was happening in their lives, they would be shunned at worst, whispered about at best. Yet day after day, they turn to their rabbi (and their congregation, they hope) for support and acceptance.
Through my doors walk men and women – alone, in couples, or with children – seeking solace and compassion. In my mind’s eye I see faces of wonderful people in turmoil. They seek to exorcize the demons from their souls; they receive instead a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, and a promise to try to create within our congregation, a community of openness and acceptance. As open and supportive a congregation as we have (our Henaynu Caring Community Committee helps see to that), many still live within walls of silence. Consider a few examples:
Vast Numbers Struggle with Mental Illness
Mental illness touches our children, our parents, and us. Members of our congregation are dealing with clinical depression, with the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, with psychological imbalance, with Asperger’s syndrome and autism, with anger management issues, with ADD and ADHD, and with a host of other conditions. Some share their struggles with a few friends; many would be horrified to speak about the reality of their lives with a larger group.
At Or Ami we mention during the Mi Shebayrach the names and conditions of those struggling with physical illnesses. We even speak about those preparing to die. Yet the emotionally draining, physically exhausting reality of mental illness remains shrouded, for the most part, behind a wall of silence. The prophets of old would exhort us to pierce this wall carefully but resolutely.
Addiction and Dependency Touches So Many
Addiction and dependency pulls apart lives and families. While many congregants who struggle with addiction attend services for spiritual support, most also attend 12 Step meetings several times a week to help them walk the path of recovery. The stories of these Or Ami congregants – of their descent to rock-bottom and, in some cases, their ascent to recovery – move me deeply. Into my office have walked so many, nearly ten percent of our congregation, each struggling with challenges ranging from alcoholism and drug addiction to gambling, overeating and sexual addictions. And those are only the ones with whom I have had discussions. Experience in other synagogue communities has taught me that even larger numbers of congregants’ families are touched by addiction. Yet, for the most part, our community has failed to recognize that these are congregational issues, demanding congregational openness and rabbinic time and attention.
Moreover, the wall of silence surrounding issues of addiction – demanded in part by the stipulation in the 12 Step program for anonymity (“what is said in this room must remain in this room”) – remains in force even in our congregation. Yet what would happen if we created a community where discussions of addictions could take place alongside discussions about other illnesses?
The Turmoil of Divorce Scares Us into Silence
The pain, anxiety and vitriol that often accompany separation and divorce are overwhelming for those experiencing it. Divorce brings discomfort also to friends and family who care about the couple and their children. Rarely are the problems one-sided. How can our congregation remain a haven of calmness amidst the sea of turmoil? Congregations tend to go silent, either ignoring the situation or declining the responsibility to care for these demoralized individuals. Yet the cry of the prophets awakens within us our social responsibility to offer support, even when it makes us incredibly uncomfortable.
Or Ami is Breaking Down Walls of Silence
I am proud of all that Congregation Or Ami has done through our Henaynu Caring Community Committee to reach out and offer love and support. We have broken down the walls of silence surrounding a multitude of issues – illnesses like Alzheimer’s, cancer and leukemia, the hope of healing and the process of dying. Yet still we inadvertently support a Berlin Wall in terms of our openness to those struggling with mental illness, fighting the scourge of addiction or dealing daily with the bitterly acidic realities of marital separation and divorce.
We have heard the cries of others and have responded. Now we – individually and as a congregation – must also hear the cries of those with problems that cause us great discomfort. These problems are not punishments from the Divine; I suspect they bring tears to God’s eyes, too. Let us hear the call of the prophets, to break down walls, to open up arms, to restore the oneness that our God demands.
As always, my doors and my heart are always open. Please call (email, tweet, Facebook) me if I, or if the congregation, can offer support, a listening ear, or a shoulder to cry on.
It can be so darn frustrating! Our Jewish community has so many resources at its fingertips to help people in need, and yet we still struggle to connect up those who need with those who can help.
That’s why I was so charged up at a gathering of the West Valley Caring Community coalition of three synagogues (Congregation Or Ami, Shomrei Torah Synagogue and Temple Aliyah), three Jewish community helping organizations (Jewish Family Service, Bet Tzedek Legal Services, and JVS – Jewish Vocational Service), and the Jewish Federation.
We met over a simple yet profound idea: that synagogues are gateway institutions tied to their communities with access to significant constituencies while the Jewish service organizations are pros at helping but need access to the constituencies that they are designed to help. Thus was born a poignant partnership called “Caring Community,” designed to place a Jewish Family Service social worker in these synagogues 4 days a week (rotating daily between the three).
Having had significant success with our synagogue/JFS social worker Elenna King, we tackled Phase 2: expanding the Caring Community partnership to include Bet Tzedek and JVS. How thrilling to be able to open the synagogues up as places where the community can come for help!
Whether you are a synagogue member or not, we are here for you.
- Contact our social worker Elenna King directly and confidentially (818-854-9760 or [email protected])
- Contact a participating rabbis directly and confidentially for a referral (through orami.org, shomreitorahsynagogue.org, or templealiyah.org)
- Contact the synagogue offices and ask for contact information for our social worker.
Then you and the social worker can call or meet to explore how the Jewish community can help. She has so many resources at her fingertips, including direct lines into a Bet Tzedek legal counsel and a JVS (Jewish Vocational Service) counselor, both dedicated to work with this Caring Community coalition.
What you talk about with this social worker is totally confidential. In fact, unless you sign a consent form, the social worker will not even share with the rabbi or synagogue that you in fact talked or met. Because we care more about connecting you up. Moreover, if you are uncomfortable meeting in your own synagogue, you may set up your meeting at one of the other synagogues.
So getting down to brass tacks (tachlis, the details). Here are a few of the ways that the Caring Community program can help.
The Jewish Family Service Social Worker can help with:
- Aging Parents (first steps, finding good home help, searching board and care facilities)
- Appealing Disability Claims
- Children with Special Needs
- Divorce and Family Issues
- Domestic Violence Resources
- Drugs and Alcohol Addiction Resources
- Family members with Mental Illness
- Grief Counseling
- Home Foreclosure
- Legal Referrals
- Navigating support systems for
- Financial Issues
Emergency Cash Grants
- Other Counseling and Counseling Resources
- Parent Support Referrals (classes, groups, resources)
The Bet Tzedek Legal Services Caring Community Project Attorney can help with:
- Consumer issues
- Elder Abuse
- Elder Law
- Employment rights
- Estate Planning – Wills
- Government Benefits
- Holocaust Reparations
- Referrals for: Immigration and Family Law issues
JVS Caring Community Counselor can help with:
- Career Assessments
- Interview Skills
- Job Changes
- Job Searches
- LinkedIn Advice
- Online Job Application Processes
- Out of Work
- Professional Networking
- Resume Writing
- Salary Negotiation
Start by contacting our Social Worker Elenna King.
Remember: We all need help sometimes. Now Caring Community makes it easy – and personal.
So take a chance. Make a call (or send an email). Getting help should be that simple!
By the way, the Caring Community is funded by a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Good works take the support of a whole community.
This year we have heard from too many people dear to us that they have cancer. The prognoses vary; the fear is too real.
And then there are those for whom the prognosis is:
Less than a year.
Between 1-3 years.
No more than 5.
The whole community is shaken: Those who receive the diagnosis. Those who hear about the diagnosis. Those who want to help and realize that there is really so little that we can do to make this better.
We vow to live life more fully. We promise to let go of the small stuff. And yet…
Reflections of a Man with Cancer
May we learn from Mike Moxness, a member of Congregation Or Ami, shares this reflection just after the one year anniversary of his diagnosis with cancer. Mike writes:
June 2, 2013… Dear friends and family,
It has been a bit over a year since I started this journey. While I am happy to celebrate a year of survival and I am grateful for the life that I lead now, the reflections on the past year have been difficult. I have learned to live in the present and not dwell on the past or worry about the future. It was challenging to think about those dark days when I had to be fed by IV and my time in the hospital. It scared me to think that the darkness may come again in the future. A year of survival is worth celebrating but I am much happier on a regular day, living in the present, being thankful for my current health and life.
I also thought about how I have lived over the past year and asked myself “would I make any changes”?
Not really. While I wish I had more time for exercise and spending time with family and friends, I think I have lived the best possible year under the circumstances. I will try to make the most of every day in the coming year and take advantage of my health. I wish I could bottle up and give everyone the peace that comes with day-by-day living.
I see so many stressed out about the future; all I can say is:
Let it all go. It will all disappear when you are confronted with your own mortality and you will realize how much time you wasted worrying about the small stuff. It is a hard transition to this new perspective and I often fall backwards. But it is easier getting back to the new frame of mind each time.
Thank you for all of your support over the past year. We are so appreciative of your role in our lives. Love, Mike
Today is the day,
G-d of old,
That I [begin to receive][begin another cycle of]
Treatment for my cancer,
This malaise that has invaded my body.
Grant healing power to the [surgery][radiation][and][chemotherapy]
To which I surrender myself with [courage][fear][hope][strength][and]
[_______ (add words that best describe your feelings)].
Reduce the side effects and eliminate any complications from this procedure
And grant me a full and complete recovery from this disease.
Grant me the clarity to make sound choices for my treatment and my life.
Grant my family comfort and relief.
Ease their burdens and ease their minds.
Grant my physicians insight and perseverance.
Grant my caregivers knowledge and skill.
Grant scientists and researchers tools and understanding to develop new treatments for this cancer, speedily, in our day.
G-d of compassion,
Grant me a path to healing.
See me through this day and the days ahead with dignity.
Strengthen my resolve to live fully and to love deeply.
Blessed are You,
G-d of health and healing.
We all need help sometimes.
Now our Henaynu Caring Community makes it even easier – and more personal.
If you’re dealing with economic problems, or the challenge of helping an elderly parent or a teen in trouble, you’re not alone. If you need support as you go through a separation, search for a new job, deal with a child with disabilities or a loved one with addictions issues, we have a new way to help.
We now host our own social worker, Elenna King, working out of our synagogue. In partnership with Temple Aliyah and Shomrei Torah, Congregation Or Ami offers this new program which provides free social services and referrals in the comfort and confidentiality/privacy of each of these three synagogues.
You’ll get help with financial assistance and government program eligibility, access to one-on-one sessions with a social worker, as well as referrals for other services and information about upcoming workshops. We all need help sometimes. It’s good to know it’s available through Caring Community.
Contact Elenna King directly at (818) 854-9760 or ask Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Rabbi Julia Weisz or our office staff to put you in touch with Elenna.
Caring Community is a community network of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles in partnership with Jewish Family Service. Caring Community is funded by a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles.
|My mom, my dad and our kids|
What might a young person appreciate when he or she is sick, loses a grandparent, or has some other problem? Besides the love and support of parents, he/she also might enjoy the support and text/email/Facebook outreach from his/her peers.
That is why Congregation Or Ami is preparing to unveil a new way that we will be extending the love and support of the Henaynu Caring Community Committee to our youth.
- To compile a list of 6th-12th grade youth who are willing to reach out to other youth who are facing illness or other difficult times;
- HYC will create a short blurb to put in the Illuminating News, for a few weeks in a row, asking for teens and middle schoolers to volunteer to be in contact with other teens in need. The blurb will be sent to our Program and Marketing Director for inclusion in Illuminating News and run between 2-4 times.
- HYC will arrange with our Rabbi to come to a Temple Teen Night to speak with students to invite them to volunteer.
- HYC will connect with the LoMPTY youth group leader, who will serve as LoMPTY Henaynu Contact.
- To collect the email addresses, cell phone numbers (for texting) and Facebook contact info for these volunteer youth;
- To create (with Henaynu Caring Community Chairs and with Rabbi Kipnes) guidelines for how teens can reach out to other youth: what to say, how often to contact, what to report back to HYC;
- Upon hearing about a young person who is sick either through the Henaynu Tracker (caring community email system) or from a contact with the Henaynu Chairs or Rabbis, to contact LoMPTY Henaynu Contact and other youth volunteers and invite/encourage them to call/email/text/Facebook, and report back that they did.
If your Or Ami 6th-12th grader is interested in
volunteering, please contact me and I will pass their information on to our
Henaynu Youth Coordinator.
It is a terrifying word to most men, as it leads them to face fears of a loss of their potency. For most, it connotes an end to sexual strength, the power of the male of our species. And it affects many, for many different medical and/or psychological reasons. Thankfully, there are some powerful medical treatments that apparently work well.
But the word “impotent” can also describe other horrifying feelings of powerlessness beyond the sexual. One can be politically impotent, without the ability to make things happen in the public sphere. One can be impotent in one’s career, unable to bring one’s work to a climactic finish. In each case and others, this helplessness strikes fear in the heart of men because what is a man anyway – we sometimes think – if not someone who can “make things happen”?
When Illness Strikes
There is also an all-consuming sense of impotence that men (and women) sometimes feel when facing a loved one with a terrible, potentially incurable disease. We sit there, holding a hand, sharing a story – perhaps calling from a distance away – trying to somehow make it better for him, but realizing yet again our own limitations. We want to do something, and yet, we feel incredibly powerless, helpless. Impotent.
My uncle Skip is dying; and of course his wife, my auntie Rozzy, is suffering too. And here I sit, 3000 miles away, unable to do anything to really make it better. For either of them. I am saddened, and feel powerless. Helpless. Impotent.
Our Precious Presence
Pastoral counselors teach that visiting – or calling, sending a note or the like – offers the most important gift we have to give. Its our “precious presence.”
In fact, responding psychologically to disease, Judaism teaches that “bikur cholim”, visiting the sick, removes 1/60 of the disease. Like those little blue pills, our visits or calls provide uplift, combat hopelessness, and make the future seem all that much more doable.
And so, instead of sitting here feeling helpless… I call, try to tell her stories, try to listen, and do my 1/60 of the holy work.
It doesn’t always feel like enough.
May it be enough.
It will have to be enough.
We count the seven times seven weeks (or 49 days) of the Omer, corresponding with the 49 day journey of the Israelites to Mt. Sinai. Counting the Omer is a mystical journey, a journey to our highest selves. This week, we traverse through the sephirah of chesed (kindness and love).
Today is day one, the first day of the Omer.
I dedicate this first day’s journey to those who are suffering – physically, emotionally, spiritually – and particularly to a young friend who is watching her father slowly die. With overflowing chesed, I/we answer her – and all who suffer: “I see you. I hear you. I honor you.” It is about just being there for each other, being present.
Poet/liturgist Alden Solovy offers Witnessing: A Meditation which invites us to pause, to remain silent, and to offer up our precious presence. (Make sure to check out Adlen’s many, many beautiful prayers at www.tobendlight.com.)
Witnessing: A Meditation
Have you seen the teen who cuts himself with a blade?
Or the youth who sticks herself with needles?
Have you seen a father force back tears while he buries his son?
Or a mother weeping with her daughter, wailing after an assault?
Do you hear the voices of the hungry, the lost, the shocked and confused
Afraid that they may never return from the darkness?
Brother, do not say: “I’ve been there.”
Sister, do not say: “I know that feeling.”
Rather, say: “I see you. I hear you. I honor you.”
Weep with me, not for me.
Pray with me, not about me.
Walk with me, don’t lead me.
This moment is not yours to repair,
Not yours to sooth,
Not yours to ease with the false balm of words.
Have you watched your daughter kiss her mother goodbye on the deathbed?
Have you seen your home consumed in fire?
If you have, bless you.
If you haven’t, bless you.
Have you stood with your sisters and brothers,
Not needing to understand,
Not needing to change the moment,
Witnessing in silence?
If you have, bless you.
If you haven’t, this blessing awaits you.
G-d of holiness and healing,
Teach us to be present as loving witnesses
On this amazing, glorious and dangerous journey.
Help us to stay awake to love and loss,
To be present for those in need.
Help me to see, to hear and to remember –
And so to bless –
The lonely and the lost,
The bereaved and bereft,
With compassion and love.
To stand with them,
As they have stood with me,
In the darkness,
Until I could, once again, face the light.
© 2010 Alden Solovy and www.tobendlight.com. All rights reserved.
At the end of the Auburn-Oregon BCS college football championship game, many winning Auburn players – including the coach and the quarterback – thanked God for being with them so that they could win the game. In fact, following the win, the Auburn team huddled together in a prayer circle.
At the moment, tens of thousands of people around the world were facing the sad painful reality that in spite of all the Mi Shebeirach healing prayers sung according to nusach Debbie Friedman (e.g. to her tune), Debbie died nonetheless.
Two groups praying; two different results. What gives, God?
Was God just too busy managing the results of college football championship that God didn’t have the time or inclination to respond to the tens of thousands of healing prayer requests for Debbie?
Is the Mi Shebeirach prayer just an ineffectual prayer or perhaps too nuanced (and God instead prefers the black & white, win or lose prayers of the football players)?
Are we getting this God and prayer thing wrong?
A few years back, when the Red Sox were playing in the World Series, I wrote a post entitled: “Can I pray that my Red Sox will win?” I wondered: Is there a one to one relationship between our prayers and the results? Or said differently, how does it work? Is it “We pray and God responds”? Then why didn’t God respond to the Mi Shebeirach healing prayers for the very woman – Debbie Friedman – who brought the Mi Shebeirach back into vogue?
Here’s how I answer that questions:
- First, read my answer to Why Do the Good Die Young?
- Then, peruse my article “God is a Fraud!” Cries the Woman Caring for her Elderly Mother
- Now, consider this:
Perhaps God does respond, but differently than we hoped.
The Mi Shebeirach is about healing, not necessarily curing. In my reading of Jewish tradition, I have not found any guarantee that God offers a cure. To cure is to remove the illness, the depression, or the disease from our bodies and minds. But the One Who Heals always offers us, and our loved ones, the promise of refu’ah, of healing. Healing is about finding a way to face whatever is ahead. It is about shalom, that sense of wholeness, amidst the brokenness of our lives. Healing is about chometz lev, the courage to go on and face the new day. And its about shalom – wholeness and peace.
So healing sometimes means that death comes and through it, a return of peace and tranquility, a return to the arms of the Holy One.
Which means that we, who are left behind, must face life without Debbie, even as we remain open to our still loving, ever caring God.
I read it on Twitter, that Debbie Friedman had died. The Jewish world lost one of the leading lights in Jewish music. I am heartbroken. Debbie Friedman opened up my heart and soul to holiness and the Holy One. And now she is gone.
To understand the depth of the grief sweeping across the Jewish community, one might recall the profound sense of loss that permeated our world upon the news of the death of John Lennon. When Lennon died, the world lost one of the greats – a singer, composer, poet, visionary, and serene commentator on the excesses of his world. Similarly, Debbie’s death removes from our midst one of gedolei hador (the great of the generation).
Debbie Friedman has touched more lives and brought more people into Judaism through her music than – I would argue – any rabbi who has ever opened his or her mouth. She has connected people to their Jewish spirituality more than any composer around the world. Debbie was not just a singer/songleader; she was poet and liturgist. She was an inspiring artist, who was uniquely able to translate the ancient words of our Jewish tradition into engaging musical pieces which spoke anew to a generation alienated from the inherited formal melodies of their parents.
Debbie taught us Lechi Lach, a song based upon the Divine call to Abram to leave his birthplace and home to venture forth to an unknown land. In this one simple piece, she accomplished multiple goals. She taught a primary Torah narrative about God’s eternal promise to people who had forgotten our ancestor’s heroic journey. She recast the story as the egalitarian tale that the Zohar mystically hints at – as a call to both Abram and to his wife Sarai. Then she reminded us that this story was our story; that God’s pledge to Abram and Sarai continues for us today. As such, Debbie Friedman renewed the Divine promise: that we all would be, could be, and are a blessing!
Debbie Friedman got her start in Jewish summer camps, especially at Camp Swig in Saratoga, CA, and in the NFTY youth movement. There Debbie married the hopefulness of the 1960’s and 1970’s with the abiding values of Torah and tradition. She helped us “Sing unto God a New Song,” while reminding us, like the prophets before her, that “Not by might, not by power, but by spirit alone, shall we all live in peace.”
Given the radical nature of everything connected to the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, Debbie’s transformation from a youth songleader into a – the? – central Jewish musical figure of our time was not easy. But it was complete. Debbie went from being shunned by many cantors as the epitome of everything that was wrong with the then-current state of new Jewish music, to being embraced by synagogues around the world and invited to join the Cantorial faculty at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and Los Angeles.
Debbie’s true beauty is that she gave voice to so many people because her music and melodies were accessible and extremely peaceful. This led her to become the champion of the nascent Jewish healing movement. Her Mi Shebeirach healing prayer-song combined Hebrew and English to inspire for those struggling with illness. Rituals of naming those seeking healing grew up around her prayer-song, allowing people to bring their anxiety and worry back into the synagogue.
Yet the quiet power of her musical genius can be found in how she engaged every Jew in the pews (and beyond) to sing out for holiness. Suddenly, she flattened the liturgical hierarchy, enabling each one of us to give voice to our aching hearts. In her concerts she repeatedly instructed her audience remain quiet and receive blessings of healing, yet those gathered often sang aloud nonetheless. All because Debbie had already placed the ability to pray for healing back in our mouths, and we refused to sit back to allow another – even the composer herself – to speak for us.
Or as Debbie wrote on her website: “We are not just the recipients of blessings, but the messengers of blessings as well. Remember, out of what emerges from life’s painful challenges will come our healing. And ultimately, our greatest healing will come when we use our suffering to heal another’s pain – to release another from their confinement.”
I twice led retreats in Malibu, CA with Debbie for Jews recovering from alcoholism and addictions. Few Jewish leaders seemed to intrinsically understand the unique challenges faced by people trying to recover from the constant pull of an addiction. But Debbie walked confidently into the retreat, and with openness and vulnerability, listened to stories of struggle and failure. Then, with hope and quiet strength, she began to speak and teach and sing. She lifted each participant up, out of the morass that consumed them. Her music painted a picture of courage and peace. How easily we were lulled into a place of healing and serenity with seemingly little effort on our part!
There are plenty of people who do not even know that the melodies that they love and cherish were written by Debbie Friedman. But they know how wonderfully spiritual her melodies make them feel. And that explains why her music is widespread and her legacy will be abiding.
Now Debbie Friedman has died. We join our light and our prayers together, wishing strength and love for her family. May her memory be for a blessing.
At Congregation Or Ami, we devoted our Shabbat services’ d’var refu’ah (words about healing) to asking for blessings of healing for Debbie Friedman. View the d’var refu’ah.
Debbie Friedman – nationally known Jewish composer, singer, and inspiration of the Jewish healing movement – composed and sings so many of the songs that enlivened Jewish worship worldwide: Thou Shalt Love the Lord Thy God, Lechi Lach, Mi Shebeirach, and a beautiful arrangement of Ahavat Olam.
Debbie is now in need of prayers of healing for herself. The singer, who at her concerts asked us to accept blessings of healing before singing along with her, lies in a hospital bed in Orange County. Her condition is grave. The latest news (from Friday):
Debbie remains in the hospital, sedated and breathing with the aid of a respirator. Debbie’s sister Sheryl reports that the doctors’ measures have not yet succeeded in opening up her lungs. They are rotating her bed in different ways in the hope that that may shake loose some of the material blocking her breathing.
We join with Jewish communities all around the world, praying for healing for Debbie, her family and her community.