Jewish song leader shows that music is good medicine

When Ben Kramarz got a mass email about two years ago asking for volunteers for a program called “Music is Good Medicine,” he couldn’t say no.

“I got this email from [a Jewish mailing list] and I knew it was exactly right for me,” said Kramarz, who teaches music, prayer and Torah at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco. “It spoke to me: This is what you do. You’re good at it.”

Kramarz, 27, has been playing guitar and singing all his life. He spent many summers as a song leader at Camp Tawonga, where his father, Ken, is executive director, and at Beth Sholom he leads the congregation’s musical activities.

In addition, he is a graduate student at U.C. Berkeley, studying Jewish music, text, folklore and tradition, and his  master’s thesis is on Jewish summer camp music.

Ben Kramarz plays in a patient’s room at UCSF Medical Center.

Kramarz said the Music is Good Medicine program at the UCSF Medical Center is especially fulfilling, and jibes nicely with his studies.

“This is how Judaism is supposed to be practiced. You’re supposed to do things like this automatically, as a normal part of your life, if you’re living a Jewish life,” the San Francisco resident said. “When you do good in the world, it makes you feel good. Also, this is an opportunity to play for people, to share this particular gift of mine.”

Kramarz grew up hating hospitals, so one of the reasons he got involved with this program was to overcome those fears, he said.

“Also, I know that the more mitzvot you do, the more mitzvot you do,” he said. “One leads to another.”

Music is Good Medicine has a fairly simple concept, bringing volunteer musicians to the bedsides of patients. A holiday concert was added starting in 2011.

“It’s making an amazing difference in the experience of our patients here,” said Pegi Walker, a UCSF chaplain who coordinates the program.

The core of 20 volunteers includes classical violinists and others who play the harp, ukulele, saxophone and bassoon. Walker or another trained chaplain is always present with the musicians when they perform for a patient “because the music is so evocative,” she said.

“When there are tears, deep emotions of grief, loss, even hope, we know the musicians aren’t trained to offer support, and that’s where we shine,” Walker added. “There have also been a number of times when musicians have encountered scenarios where they need chaplain support to debrief.”

Kramarz can relate.

“Sometimes I feel terrible afterwards, because the person is really sick,” he said. “Sometimes they’re not responsive and you can’t tell if you’re having an impact.”

But, there’s definitely a sunny side, he added.

“Once, I played ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ for this middle-age couple, and they were in tears,” he said.

And: “There was one woman in her 40s, with ovarian cancer, who asked for Debbie Friedman’s ‘Mi Shebeirach’ [a song of healing]. I played it for her and she told me it made her day,” he said.

Once a patient in his early 20s asked Kramarz to play some music by the grunge band Alice in Chains. “Ben launched into some heavy metal guitar licks [by Metallica, actually] that totally transformed the patient’s day,” Walker said.

Recently, Kramarz played for an elderly man from Israel in UCSF’s neurosurgery intensive care unit.

“He was struggling with confusion and medical issues, and he was in soft restraints,” Walker said. “When Ben began strumming his guitar and singing in Hebrew, this patient’s eyes grew wide with recognition. He calmed down visibly. The friend that was visiting at the time had tears of gratitude in his eyes.

“Music is a profound healing force.” 

Music is Good Medicine is always seeking new volunteers. Contact Pegi Walker at (415) 353-1941  or visit


Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County." She is a wife and mother of two grown sons and grandmother of three.