Debbie Friedman was perhaps best known for her musical composition “Mi Shebeirach,” the prayer for healing, which is sung in synagogues all over America every Shabbat.
So it was altogether appropriate that when Friedman, a self-taught musician who is widely credited with transforming synagogue worship, was hospitalized last week in critical condition, her legion of fans, including many in Pittsburgh, responded by singing the prayer with which she will forever be synonymous, in synagogues, chavuras or simply by themselves.
Friedman died Sunday, Jan. 9, at a hospital in Mission Viejo, Calif. She was 59. The cause of her death was complications from pneumonia. Friedman had suffered from multiple sclerosis for many years.
While her compositions are mostly heard in Reform and Conservative synagogues, some Orthodox groups have embraced Friedman’s music, and they have even been performed in Christian churches.
Since the 1970s, she recorded more than 20 albums of songs, and even had one composition, the “Alef Bet Song,” performed by Barney the purple dinosaur, a television favorite of children.
Although not trained as a cantor, she was appointed in 2007 to the faculty of the Reform movement’s cantorial school, an acknowledgment of her significant contributions to the American Jewish songbook.
Cantor Shira Adler, who served as a cantor at both Temple Sinai and Tree of Life Congregation when she lived in Pittsburgh several years ago, organized an online effort to have Friedman’s fans worldwide sing “Mi Shebeirach” (a song of healing) simultaneously last Saturday night, at 6:12 p.m. West Coast time, immediately following Shabbat, to pray for Friedman’s recovery. Adler posted a YouTube video asking people to participate, and circulated it through Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. Within a short time, the call to pray for Friedman went viral.
Although Friedman did not recover, Adler believes that bringing so many people together in prayer was itself a blessing.
“Debbie’s work represents the transcendent power of music and connection,” Adler told the Chronicle, speaking from her home in Westchester County, N.Y. “There aren’t that many people that can come onto earth and can change so many from such a pure place. She really was an earth angel. And in a weird way, maybe this was her swan song. Our prayer circle crossed time zones and language barriers, and reminded us of the importance of being connected. Pulling together to pray for her reminded us that we are still connected to each other and to the divine.”
In Pittsburgh, Rabbi Amy Hertz, assistant rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation, and Beth Goldstein, director of teen education at the Agency for Jewish Learning, responded to Adler’s call to prayer by organizing a vigil at Rodef Shalom Saturday night.
“At 9:12 (corresponding to 6:12 p.m. on the West Coast) we opened the ark at Rodef Shalom and sang the ‘Mi Shebeirach’ song,” Hertz said. “We sang Debbie Friedman songs from 8:30 to 9:12. It was a beautiful opportunity to be together.”
“She was my hero,” Hertz said of Friedman. “She was a hero of my generation of young Jews. She brought joy into Judaism by singing. She had a profound effect on my friends and colleagues. She raised up an entire generation of song leaders. There is now a whole generation of Jews who are connected to Judaism through music. She touched our hearts, and opened them up to possibilities in a way that other Jewish leaders — people with Ph.D.s — couldn’t do.”
While her music is not complicated, it opened paths to prayer and feeling, said Rabbi Donni Aaron, Jewish Community Center Jewish educator, who sang with Friedman on several occasions.
“Her music is so simple. She wasn’t into complex thoughts,” Aaron said. “But it was a doorway. It was all about access, and sharing with other people. She knew ‘Mi Shebeirach’ was something first-graders loved, but it was also something 90-year-olds loved. She knew her music was reaching people of all ages.”
Rabbi Amy Greenbaum, spiritual leader of Beth Israel Center in Pleasant Hills, met Friedman last October at a conference called Shabbat Shira (Shabbat of song) in Wisconsin, and recounted an experience she believes reflected her ability to connect to others.
“During the Shabbat morning service, she sang her ‘Mi Shebeirach’ song, but she sang it continuously as she walked around the room and made eye contact with every single person there,” Greenbaum recalled. “You could feel her willing healing for each person, whether it was physical or spiritual or emotional healing. It was very powerful. And I think it speaks to the fact that her music has the ability to touch people individually, and why she was so effective and influential.
“She was really the first of her kind,” Greenbaum continued, “and I think she started a whole new generation of musicians. She did such incredible things for Judaism and for prayer, and I think her legacy will live on forever.”
Born in Utica, N.Y., Friedman started as a group song leader in the Reform movement’s Olin-Sang-Ruby Union summer camp in Wisconsin the early 1970s, where she set Jewish liturgy to her own contemporary melodies.
Her first album, “Sing Unto God,” was released in 1972, followed by 19 more over the next three decades.
But “Mi Shebeirach” remains her best-known composition.
“The issue is whether we’re reaching people and helping them pray.”
Area congregations are planning tributes to Friedman’s music during their Shabbat services Friday night. Temple Ohav Shalom is one of them.
Ohav Shalom Rabbi Art Donsky and music coordinator Amanda Russell will interweave Friedman’s songs throughout this week’s kabbalat Shabbat service in tribute to the singer.
“There is a poetic irony of sadness of her passing when she did,” Donsky said. “This coming Shabbat is Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of song.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. JTA contributed to this story.)