Remembering How NFTY Saved My Life: Everyday Magic, Day 369

I was a troubled teen to say the least. My parents were immersed in what my extended family still calls “THE divorce,” an event that scarred everyone involved. Being geeky or even goth, and living in the mid-1970s in central New Jersey, I wasn’t exactly growing gracefully, but consistently walking into furniture and walls, falling asleep at inopportune times and writing a lot of very depressing poetry. But then I found NFTY, and seriously, it saved my life.

NFTY — the National Federation of Temple Youth — was the national organization that helped fuel youth groups of reform Jewish synagogues, and in the 70s NFTY also was the cosmic soup that spawned many spectacular singer-songwriters who not only changed the music and overall gestalt of many prayer services but my own life as well. During that time, the likes of Debbie Friedman, Jeff Klepper and Danny Friedlander, and many others were NFTY song leaders, roaming through circles of us at Camp Kutz, singing the likes of “Bashana Haba ‘ah” and “Tov L’Hadot.”

But I get ahead of myself: Camp Kutz was (and still is) the NFTY mothership: a beautiful camp in Warwick, NY known for, beyond NFTY, being the place with the Chock Full O Nuts” (“….is a heavenly coffee….”) commercials were shot. It was an idyllic oasis in the mountains with a wonderful gazebo overlooking the lake (at least in how I remember it), and our youth group from Temple Shaari Emeth went up there each summer for a lock-in.

There, we would become a larger version of what we did all year in our weekly youth group meetings: sit in a circle, share our deepest desires and fears, cry a lot and sing more. For those of you who have taken writing workshops with me, it’s no surprise how I imprinted on this experience. After Havdalah services (Saturday evening prayers to say goodbye to the Sabbath), we would sit by candlelight, sometimes holding hands, sing with all our heart, and go around the circle, sharing on topics such as “What is your most precious possession?” and “What do you love and fear most?”

Was it kind of like group therapy? Sure, but to a bunch of New Jersey suburban teens, especially me, it was a life line: through our stories, I found courage, strength, hope and community. The singing especially stayed with me, and during the darkest times of my life when trying to get myself to sleep at night or stay awake during an overwhelming time, I would sing “Shalom Rav” or “Vyashu Ish” to myself. The songs were my first line of defense against doing anything more rash, and singing them, particularly in community, brought me home and filled in the empty spaces with so much music that I could begin to envision a future beyond court battles, loneliness and screaming matches.

I remember especially being with my youth group at Camp Kutz the weekend my grandfather died. When I saw our rabbi and my father walking up to the main meeting room to talk with me, I was at first delighted they showed up, not realizing bad news propelled them. Packing suddenly, half crying because of my grandfather and half crying because I had to leave Kutz, I walked by Mark Z, the president of our youth group (I was the chaplain), one of the more popular kids in high school (at least in my eyes). He gave me a kiss as a way of saying how our small youth group traveled with me.

In the last week, looking for a version of “Vyushvu Ish” to bring to Shiray Shabbat (our band) to play for services at the Lawrence Jewish Community Center, I’ve clicked and googled my way into a whole lot of NFTY music. All I’ve seen and heard reminds me how it was there but for the grace of god — through 1970s Jewish music — that carried me to the other side, from where I could start a new life. At the core of who I am, these songs still play.

(with a special shout-out to Mark Z, Carrie, Cheryl and others from way back then — thanks for being there).

Not By Might and Not By Power: The Passing of Debbie Friedman and the Tucson Tragedy: Everyday Magic, Day 175

In the aftermath of the Tucson tragedy that took six lives and shattered dozens more, and as we wait to see if Rep. Gabby Giffords recovers, Jewish singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman died. She was in a medicine-induced coma as a result of a long illness. Meanwhile, Giffords recovers — I hope — while being held in a medicine-induced coma. Jewish identity was important to both women, but neither was divided away from the rest of world because of her beliefs and culture.

All day, Friedman’s song “Not by Might and Not by Power” runs through my mind because of its simply chorus, carrying an old testament phrase in new language: “Not by might and not by power. By spirit alone, shall all live in peace.” I remember singing that song 35 years ago with my local synagogue youth group in central New Jersey, and how at the very end, we yelled out, “Ruah!”, the Hebrew word for “spirit.” Now I scan the web for photos of people holding candles in the darkness, and read updates on Giffords and others connected with this tragedy, which was incited by the language of hatred, which is always the language of division. Debbie Friedman’s music consistently did the opposite with songs like “MiSheberech,” which unified people in calling for healing, and “L’chi Lach,” which calls us together to journey to a new land of greater peace. But it wasn’t just the words: she devoted her life to gathering people together in song, which is a kind of language always about unity, and therefore, about love.

It’s long past time to find our way back to the language of love, even and especially when speaking with people who believe totally different views on issues than we do. We make out way into such conversations not by might or power, but truly, by spirit along. It takes great awareness and courage to stop polarizing, whether you’re a Palin-Tea Party supporter or someone like me, who believes still in the promise of Obama and the greatly-damaged and corrupted democratic process. Even writing this, I realize how it’s hard to speak of people with vividly different views without putting them in one box, myself in another.

I don’t mean to suggest it’s easy or even possible to reach across these divides, but in memory of Debbie Friedman and so many others who showed us ways to cross over, it’s clear to me how much we need to keep trying anyway. I’m thinking of how best I can do this more expansively in my heart and life. Meanwhile, I have this example from Debbie of “Turning Mourning into Dancing.”

Second helpings: Sing the MisSheberich for Debbie Friedman

Sing the Misheberech for Debbie Friedman: Everyday Magic, Day 174

Debbie Friedman is in an Orange County hospital on a respirator and in a medically-induced coma, and so people around the world are singing for her what she’s given us for decades: the Misheberech (another version here, with words), the Hebrew prayer for healing which Friedman, the most important voice in Jewish music in the last 30 years, wrote into a song of vital importance to thousands of people.

I’m one of those people. Through my breast cancer, surgeries and chemotherapy for 14 months, every Friday night at the Lawrence Jewish Community Center as well as some other synagogues, people sang the Misherech for me. If I was there, friends would reach out to my shoulder or lean into me and smile as they sang. If I wasn’t, they would still call out my name as well as the names of others needing healing.

My connection with Friedman’s music began decades earlier, back at Camp Kutz, the NFTY (National Federation of Temple Youth — a huge organization for reform Jewish teens) headquarters in upstate New York where song leaders such as Friedman led us in their original interpretations of prayer, often mixing Hebrew and English. I sang out with my all my heart, even if off-tune, on “Not by Might and Not by Power,” “Sing Unto God” and many other Friedman songs, and it’s likely I even met her at one point. I played my compilation of Friedman and other song leaders’ music  day and night through my late teens, and still, when faced with a challenging situation, will find myself humming or singing these songs, the talismans of my life.

Now I’m thinking of Debbie Friedman’s life, of how much she not only wrote and created, but performed at camps, concert halls, conferences and synagogues. I’m thinking of teens breaking through their usual self-consciousness to sing with abandon, and what a gift such an experience is, and how lucky I was to receive that gift. I’m singing the Misheberich for Debbie Friedman, and asking you to sing it too, even if you don’t know the words. Just sing whatever your heart tells you is a prayer for healing. To learn more, visit her website, where she writes:

It is a strange thing that pain creates beauty and potential for healing.  It is hard to imagine that it can provide a foundation for beautiful moments to arise.  We attempt to find a way to manage survival from one minute to the next, as pain becomes the overriding force. When we are experiencing emotional discomfort, we need to find a safe place to express our grief and loss.

The willingness to both offer and receive blessings of healing and well-being allows one who is wounded to transform and unravel their pain. Our pain need not bury us, instead it may elevate us to the point of healing – if we choose to allow it.

It is with this concept in mind that the Mi Shebeirach, the prayer for healing, which is a concise English translation of the traditional prayer, is now available for you to download. For those who know it and use it, use it in good health. Use it for yourselves, for others, and for those in your lives who do not know it, but may need it.