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Yizkor 5772

Yizkor – 5772 “May We Be Blessed”

October 8, 2011

It was January 9, nine months ago this Sunday. I was making my way between terminals at the Houston airport on the way to a 5 day spirituality retreat when my brother Mark called me. He barely said hello before telling me, “Jamie, Debbie Friedman died today.”

I was in shock. But I was not surprised, as Debbie had fought illness on and off since 1990.  Just four years ago, during the Reform movement’s biennial convention in San Diego, we got word that she was in the hospital and near death.  Miraculously, she recovered, and during the convention, was flown from New York to San Diego to receive the prestigious Alexander M. Schindler Distinguished Service Award.

During that amazing evening, Debbie, who traditionally sang her “Mi Shebeirach” prayer to her audiences, offering healing to them, sat and listened as 5,000 of us sang the same “Mi Shebeirach” to her.  There were tears in her eyes as well as ours, partly because we were so happy she was recovering, but also because we did not know if she would be around much longer.

But she not only survived, but thrived. Many of you remember her appearance here in 2008 for my 20th anniversary celebration. People flocked to both her service and her concert.  And that night, she offered a haunting rendition of “Oseh Shalom” that still catches in my throat each time I sing it.

Sing beginning of Oseh Shalom…(written 2008)

She lived only 59 years, but lived them to the full. She was a roman candle who showered all who knew her with light and heat and wonder. She, her voice and her music, were blessings to kindergarteners and millionaire philanthropists, with whom she mingled with equal ease.

I met her in 1968 through my involvement in our Temple youth group and its region, known as NoFTY, Northern Federation of Temple Youth. I was captivated by her boisterousness, her earnestness, her willingness to teach us the music of our faith and of Israel, long before she ever penned any of her own tunes.

Our song sessions were legendary.   Two hours were the minimum  on a Shabbat afternoon. We would sing one song for 15 minutes without stopping to catch our breath. One song, Hashiveinu, we sang in a round for almost an hour, just trying to get it perfect one time! That was the kind of devotion Debbie inspired all her life.

Recently, a friend sent me a recording that was made the following year, in December of 1969. It was Debbie leading us in song at a Shabbat weekend in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. It was quintessentially Debbie – same voice, same spirit at age 18 as we heard over her entire career.

My favorite local story about Debbie is the time I went to a community Chanuka celebration at the JCC about 10 years ago. It was Saturday night. A Chasidic rabbi solemnly proclaimed that the melody we would sing for the Havdala prayers to end Shabbat was a traditional Orthodox tune. It was Debbie’s, of course.

Debbie Friedman took the bones and flesh of Jewish life and spirit and placed a pulsing, beating heart into it, regardless of where you stood in the Jewish world.

This Yizkor, so many of us remember her with great fondness and an incalculable sense of loss. It is felt by those who didn’t know her, but who only felt her through her music, which is sung all over the world. Her funeral was standing room only. And that service has been seen by more than 29,000 people on the internet.

But her death is still so hard to accept.  It is almost impossible for me to believe that she will not sing here at Temple again. Yet she lives on every single Shabbat when we sing her melodies, especially her Mi Shebeirach that has touched literally hundreds of thousands of Jews.

Music survives the grave, it is always with us, inviting us to remembrance and connection.

At Yizkor, we remember those who have died, but whose melodies still pluck our heartstrings, those whose voices we still hear as clear as day, whose touch we can feel as if they are sitting next to us even at this moment. We feel the brush of their lips on our cheeks as we remember them so vividly now here at Yizkor time. Our tears fall because at this moment, the sweetness of their lives and the bitterness of their loss mingle as one, in salty wetness.

This spring, we lost another giant in Jewish life. His name was Rabbi Jack Stern, Rabbi of Westchester Reform Synagogue. He was a great teacher and mentor, not only to me, but to hundreds of Reform rabbis, all over North America. He was also a friend of my family for more than 50 years.

Jack’s passing was not a shock, but it was a surprise. He was almost 85 when he died. And just two weeks before his passing, I found myself walking with him on the streets of New Orleans. He suffered from problems with his legs for the last 30 years of his life and moved slowly on his cane. Two blocks took almost 15 minutes. But it was worth every moment it took to walk with him for two blocks, hearing his stories, lapping up his encouragement, finding inspiration in his example.

He grew up in a different era, when rabbis were not that well paid, but treated like royalty. He consciously refused to accept that kind of adulation because he knew the price of it was too high. No one would listen to the hard messages he gave in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s if he took in all the respect and praise he was offered.

He was a civil rights champion, he was a founding member of MAZON, the Jewish response to hunger, he served on the board of the Union for Reform Judaism and was the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Jack Stern loved his fellow rabbis, but was not afraid to take them to task. He was one of the first ones not only to champion women rabbis and encourage them to aspire to the heights of leadership in our movement. He also refused to look the other way when any colleagues were guilty of ethical transgressions. He spearheaded the effort to make us more accountable for our actions and not sweep issues under the rug as had been done previously.

“Stern” means “star” in German. And Jack was a star to all of us, who could not wait for his messages when he was president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.  He always kept a sense of humor, and was not afraid to laugh at the very jokes he knew he could never tell from the pulpit!

The star that laughed.  That is how I will always think of Jack Stern.

Bright and brilliant, giving light and warmth, I will remember his laughter when things get tough. Despite setback and physical infirmity, Jack never lost his ability to laugh and cheer others. It was as if he knew in his marrow that laughter outlasts the grave as surely as song.

At Yizkor we hear echoes of laughter of those we remember today. We hear it as clear and loudly as if we were looking at our loved ones face to face. Their laughter, which showed who they really were inside; their laughter which was pure and true and loving, is as real in memory as it was when they erupted in mirth.

Laughter and Song. Each of us knows someone who provided both of these blessings in our lives.  And we honor them here and now, with the full knowledge that part of them will never leave us, the part that we carry within us, their laughter and music of the soul.

Rabbi Jack Stern wrote in 1983, “Such is the meaning of faith – to know the melody is playing even when we may not hear it – to know our beloved are safe even when they are beyond our sight.”

Rabbi Stern is right, so often, we refuse to listen to the melodies of our beloved dead.  We are caught up in the raucous noise of every day life.  We run around from place to place, from task to task and we are deaf to these powerful sounds coming from those we loved so much.

At this holy moment, though, our ears are wide open, our hearts thirsting. We long for the sounds of remembered song and laughter we ignored so often during other days this past year. And now, right now, they fill us so much that we are overwhelmed, and the tears come as we remember our fathers and mothers, our brothers and sisters, our dear partners and sadly, even our children.  We also remember the laughter and music of friends who touched us, who moved us to be better than we would have been, of mentors whose insight revealed to us talents and blessings to which we had been blind.

And beyond music and laughter, which endure so powerfully in our hearts and minds, there is love. Love cannot die, it can only be ignored by our own distracted hearts.

I loved Debbie Friedman, more than for her music alone.  I loved Jack Stern, for more than just his laughter. And everyone here who has lost someone whose memory you cherish this Yizkor time, you loved them with a fierceness others may never understand.

That is the love we honor today, a love that cannot be shattered, broken, never to be forgotten. Like laughter and song, our love endures. They are all blessings that we feel but cannot touch, like the memories of our beloved dead.

I remember one gathering where Jack and Debbie were together, him with his irrepressible smile, leaning on a cane, her with her blazing look and gentle voice. And I thought, that is the epitome of what we seek in faith – gentle laughter and inspiring song.

It was toward the end of meeting so Debbie offered her blessing for the road, so simple, so sweet.  It took me years to realize it meant as much about the road of life as much as our travels:

May we be blessed as we go on our way May we be guided in peace

May we be blessed with health and joy May this be our blessing, Amen.

May we be sheltered in the wings of peace May we be kept in safety and in love

May grace and compassion find their way to every soul May this be our blessing, Amen.

To watch them sing together, Jack Stern and Debbie Friedman was to know how sadness can vanish in music and laughter, if only for a moment.

To remember them both, now that they are gone, is to know that death itself is defeated by blessings of music and laughter. They bring us to full remembrance of those we loved so much, those we still miss today, those who inspire us and move us and will never leave our hearts, so long as we never forger their music, their laughter and their love.

May the lives of our loved ones not only be a blessing, but may the music and laughter of their lives bless us today, tomorrow and for all time.  For all time.

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784