Singing a new song

Forty self-described amateur musicians at San Francisco’s Jewish Home are reaching all the right spiritual and emotional notes, under the deft guidance of the Home’s chaplain, Rabbi Sheldon Marder, and singer-songwriter, Judith-Kate Friedman. As part of the Home’s weekly “Psalms, Songs and Stories” program, the elders compose songs after their study of particular psalms.

“We want the songs to be good enough to even sing in my regular concert career,” said Friedman of “Psalms, Songs, and Stories,” an outgrowth of Songwriting Works, a nonprofit she founded in 1997 to help elders and young people make music. “The whole point of the collective process is to raise the elders up and see how far they can go.”

The program has been so successful that Marder has taken it to conferences on Jewish healing, as it can be easily duplicated at other facilities.

“We’re doing something that seems to us to be new,” said Marder, the Home’s chaplain for the past five years and the former associate dean and director of the rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. “It’s about a rabbi in the Jewish Home doing pastoral care, using music and Bible on a group level. From the point of view of Judith-Kate Friedman, it’s a song-writing group, but the two of us together are doing something very different.”

Marder and Friedman decided in early 2003 to provide elders with a creative and spiritual outlet. But what makes this pastoral and musical collaboration even more unusual is that 75 percent of the participants, Friedman said, have some form of dementia. And, “you never know what’s possible until you try it and the Home was really up for checking out what was possible.”

“In creating a comfortable, life-affirming environment for elders in a care setting, dignity is of utmost importance,” said Friedman, who debuted as an artist-in-residence at the Home in 1997 thanks to a grant from the California Arts Council.

“Elders are not, as a group, held in high esteem in U.S. culture, nor are people of any age who are frail or have needs for assistance.  But to Rabbi Marder and myself, everyone is listened to and engaged with respect and genuine interest, and this makes it naturally welcoming for people — regardless of their prior musical education — to participate fully and know they are accepted as full participants.” 

One woman who can’t see or hear very well still comes to class and is a regular contributor. And several singers in the class performed a selection of songs last year at a conference on elders in San Francisco.

“Rabbi Marder and Judith Friedman are wonderful facilitators,” said Edie Sadewitz, who moved to the Home in April 2003, two months after the program began. “Everyone is considered on an equal basis and each one of us has this creativity in us. We all contribute to the song with our own individual expression.”

A broken hip nearly kept Gloria Houtenbrink, 83, from realizing her potential and channeling her talents at the Home. After her injury she grew steadily unhappy about spending too much time in her room.

“If you don’t do anything, your mind gets duller and duller,” said Houtenbrink, who worked at brokerage houses on the East Coast and in the Bay Area. “The class keeps me going and I enjoy life as much as I can. If we didn’t ever write any songs, I’d still be in the class.”

The power and the magic of the group have also left their mark on Marder.

“In ‘Psalms, Songs and Stories,’ I think my listening skills have become very heightened. In the class I am continually trying to reframe what other people say,” said Marder, a scholar of the Bible with an emphasis on the psalms. “This enhances my other teaching at the Home and in the Bay Area, and is meaningful to me religiously. And what is most exciting and gratifying is that the process of doing this enables people to truly clarify their beliefs.”

Not that building a consensus about values and ideals is always easy. Friedman recalled one painstaking discussion that followed the study of Psalm 128. The group debated for a long time the words “God’s world.” Some preferred the phrase as is, while others favored “our world,” “this world” or “the world.”

“I didn’t know if everyone was going to go for ‘God’s world,'” said Friedman. “But different people spoke very passionately and swayed the others. In the moment of consensus, people were just completely present.”

The song as composed by the group is a snippet of wisdom from those who have lived long and a legacy to the future:

“You shall enjoy the fruit of your labors
Collecting memories from year to year
Live to see your children’s children
With much joy and few tears
May you see the beauty of their growing
Like saplings into trees
As we look ahead to the future
May we leave God’s world in peace.”

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.