Debbie Friedman has died this week and I must say that it has shaken me quite a bit. I didn’t know her well at all, unlike so many others. But I have been singing her songs and praying with her melodies since I was a little boy. I didn’t realize that my childhood bedtime lullabies were actually NFTY melodies for shacharit (the evening service), some of which Debbie wrote.
She was an innovator. I remember when she began to sing her Mi Shebeirach to groups and was so moved by the fact that she wanted to sing it to us — without us saying a word. It was such a generous statement. And only once she finished, then we would join in to sing it to her. Even her concerts were filled with prayer!
For lots of kids at Jewish camps over the years, the songleader was the closest thing they could get to meeting a rock star of some sort. That was the part that always made me uncomfortable (being on the receiving end of that). What I wanted to do is to teach text and encourage people to connect to God the way Debbie had taught us. She was a great educator becuase she made classic texts accessible and she helped us learn our tradition more than any rabbi’s sermon. She sang texts many of us would not have ordinarily learned in Hebrew school. She shared these texts with translations and interpretations to make them accessible and inclusive.
So what did I take away from Debbie, a Jewish innovator in music, Jewish learning, and healing — whom I barely knew?
During my college years, I spent my summers songleading at the Reform movement’s Kutz Camp: NFTY’s Campus for Reform Jewish Teens in Warwick, NY. I was blessed with the opportunity to bring some 300 high school students, counselors and faculty together in song every day. My task was not to entertain, but to create an atmosphere where each person who desired could join his or her voice with another’s. It didn’t matter whether they could sing or not; what mattered was that those people felt they were an integral part of a community; that they found a safe place to raise their voices, sing loudly (even off-key) and feel connected. It was in that Kutz Camp dining room where I truly found God Presence through song.
My role as song leader at Kutz Camp was to facilitate and guide the community to create a harmony—a unity—that is hard to find in our “everyday spaces.” This has become the foundation for my rabbinate—creating sacred space for individuals and families. By cultivating meaningful relationships with an outstretched arm and an open heart, we can encourage people to participate in the strengthening of a spiritually, socially, and intellectually stimulating and inclusive congregation.
Debbie’s model, for me, was to say that a Jewish community is more substantial than any association—it is a congregation reaching out to bring the Presence of God into all the corners of life.
As for me, personally, her melody for Mi Shebeirach has been sung for my daughter, Noa, after her diagnosis with congenital heart defects and through her recovery after heart surgery at three weeks old, and for me after my diagnosis with multiple sclerosis earlier this year. We sang Lechi Lach at my girls’ Brit Chaim ceremonies so their journeys will be filled with meaning. Rabbi Jeff Clopper (my co-Kutz songleader one summer) sang her T’filat Haderech–Traveler’s Prayer at our wedding.
Debbie Friedman, z”l, had a tremendous impact on many lives, perhaps without even realizing it. May her memory be an abiding blessing.
Debbie’s obituary was in today’s NY Times.