Update: Singer Debbie Friedman died Sunday, January 9 at a Southern California hospital. The Sunday gathering, at the JCC in Manhattan, which was to be a healing service, will go on as a memorial service.
A worldwide effort is underway to bring about healing for one of American Judaism’s most beloved composers of healing and other Jewish liturgy.
Debbie Friedman is the widely-known composer of Jewish songs, including “Mi Shebeirach,” “Sing Unto God” and “Lechi Lach,” which have become standard parts of synagogue and camp life in Judaism’s liberal denominations. Friedman, who has long suffered with ill health but been private about the underlying cause, has developed pneumonia and is on a respirator, in a medically induced coma, in an Orange County, Calif., hospital. Her sister Cheryl Friedman reports that as of January 7, the doctors’ measures have not yet succeeded in opening up her lungs.
Close friends and colleagues are asking people worldwide to pray for her complete healing. In Manhattan, where Friedman lived for about 15 years until she moved to Los Angeles last spring, there will be a healing service at the JCC in Manhattan on Sunday at 8 p.m. Those unable to attend can view it online.
Friedman, who weaves together Jewish texts with folk tunes to create a unique and singable kind of music has, for many years, run Jewish healing services and conducted them personally for those who come to her struggling with serious health problems. She also created a highly popular liturgy for women’s Passover Seders, which she sometimes conducted herself. Friedman has been a mainstay at concerts and other performances.
“People just want to be together, they want to take the power of healing that she gave all of us and send it back to her,” said Rabbi Joy Levitt, executive director of the JCC and a close, longtime friend of Friedman’s. Levitt said that she is trying to arrange for a phone or computer to be brought to Friedman’s bedside on Sunday so that the service can be streamed to her.
An independent cantor, Shira Adler, is organizing an online effort to have participants worldwide sing Friedman’s “Mi Shebeirach” at the same time on Saturday night just after Shabbat ends on the West Coast at 6:12 p.m. (9:12 p.m. on the East Coast). Adler has posted a video asking people to participate on YouTube and sent it through listserves for cantors and through other online listservs, as well as posting it on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.
Adler said she has gotten hundreds of e-mails from all over the world in the first 12 hours since after sending out her video.
“Her music has profoundly impacted my life professionally and personally, so I want to do everything I can within my power to make a difference,” said Adler, who has never actually met Friedman. “I know the power of the Internet and social networks, and the power of prayer, so I thought I’d make an attempt to get this out.”
In 2007 Friedman was appointed to the faculty of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College. Recently, she has been teaching on its Los Angeles campus and was scheduled to teach a week-long course on “Music as Midrash” at HUC’s New York campus starting January 10. Now her cantorial colleagues and friends are stepping in to try and teach it in her place.
HUC sent out a note on Friday asking that people not try to contact the hospital, which has been overwhelmed with calls, or Friedman’s family members, and to respect the composer’s privacy.
Rabbi Richard Levy, director of spiritual growth at HUC, said in that e-mail: “Please pray for Debbie’s recovery. She is a strong believer in the power of prayer, she has elevated so many prayers with her music, and has taught us how to pray through the melodies she has written.
“Pray this week and on Shabbat, sing the songs that have accompanied your growing up, sing her Mi She-berach with all the power you have — get together with friends and colleagues and sing other songs of hers together — let her hear us in her bed in Orange County, and let the Holy One hear us in the heights of heaven.”
Friedman’s Hebrew name, traditionally used in prayers for healing, is Dina Lea bat Freidl ve-Gavriel.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen is an award-winning journalist who covers philanthropy, religion, gender and other contemporary issues. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York magazine, among many other publications. She authored the book “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant.”