Service celebrates life of songwriter Debbie Friedman

Hundreds turned out in person and thousands on-line to mourn the passing of beloved American Jewish songstress.

Debbie Friedman 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Debbie Friedman 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
NEW YORK – What was originally billed as a healing service became a memorial service Sunday night at the Manhattan Jewish Community Center, as hundreds turned out in person and thousands on-line to mourn the passing of beloved American Jewish songwriter Debbie Friedman.
“This is not a funeral,” JCC Manhattan Rabbi Joy Levitt told attendees, both to those crowded into the JCC’s gym and those watching on a simultaneous Internet broadcast.
“There will be no eulogy, or words of tribute.”
Instead, Levitt said, the group would be serving as virtual shomrim – those who guard a body before its burial – paying tribute to Friedman’s life through song.
It was estimated that 3,000 people watched the service on the Internet, JCC organizers said. A virtual tribute carried on simultaneously with the service, as Friedman fans and friends posted loving messages on the service’s chat stream, Facebook and Twitter page while watching.
One observer noted on Twitter in typical text for the website, “hundreds of ppl sharing their stories, typing ‘amen’ after every sung prayer, old friends reuniting in the chat stream. powerful.”
In the gymnasium itself, tears flowed freely among participants, who held tealight candles, and swayed back and forth with the music, which included well-known Friedman works like “Mi Shebayrach” and “L’chi Lach.”
The group ranged in age from babies sleeping in car seats and child carriers to elderly couples. As they wept, participants (at one point, including Mandy Patinkin, famed actor and singer of “Mamaloshen”) sang with the song leaders, who included Central Synagogue Senior Cantor Angela Warnick Buchdahl.
“When I was a young child, it was [Friedman’s] music that opened up my connection to the Jewish community,” Buchdahl told the Post, noting that Friedman was a personal mentor. “Her music was a total game-changer in terms of bringing out an accessible, openly vulnerable music that just allowed people to unleash their prayers in a way that they hadn’t been able to do before.
“She was able to tap into that piece of us that needed some way to really express ourselves,” Buchdahl said.
“She changed the way that Jewish music happened.”
Friedman’s funeral will take place Tuesday in Santa Ana, California. A formal memorial service in New York will be scheduled over the next few weeks, Levitt said.
Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie said in a press release, “Debbie Friedman was an extraordinary treasure of our Movement, and one of its most influential voices. 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. 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.”
“By creating a whole new genre of Jewish music, Debbie was able to reintroduce authentic Jewish spirituality,” said Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism and a longtime friend and fellow songwriter. “She wrote melodies that spoke to us, spoke to our intellect, spoke to our emotions.
“Debbie’s influence reached every corner of our Movement, and of the American Jewish community,” he added.
“Her connection to, and with, Jewish camps was particularly powerful. Today’s rabbis, cantors and Jewish leaders were inspired by Debbie, so often quite personally.
Although she faced great health challenges, Debbie was a constant presence in the lives of our camps, conferences and congregations.”