Note: see below for e-mail from HUC president Rabbi David Ellenson
Debbie Friedman, a popular singer and songwriter who is widely credited with reinvigorating synagogue music, has died.
Friedman died Jan. 9 after being hospitalized in Southern California for several days with pneumonia. She was in her late 50s.
“Debbie influenced and enriched contemporary Jewish music in a profound way,” read a statement published Jan. 9 on the website of the Union for Reform Judaism. “Her music crossed generational and denominational lines and carved a powerful legacy of authentic Jewish spirituality into our daily lives.”
Friedman brought a more folksy, sing-along style to American congregations. She began her musical career at Jewish summer camps, and was a song leader at Camp Swig in Saratoga in the mid-70s.
In 2007 she was appointed to the faculty of the Reform movement’s cantorial school in a sign that her style had gained mainstream acceptance.
Friedman released more than 20 albums and performed in sold-out concerts around the world at synagogues, churches, schools and prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall. She received dozens of awards and was lauded by critics worldwide. She is best known for her composition “Mi Shebeirach,” a prayer for healing that is sung in many North American congregations.
“Debbie Friedman was an extraordinary treasure of our movement and an individual of great influence,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “Twenty-five years ago, North American Jews had forgotten how to sing. Debbie reminded us how to sing, she taught us how to sing. She gave us the vehicles that enabled us to sing. Then she impacted our youth and our camps and, ultimately, from there she impacted our synagogues.
“What happens in the synagogues of Reform Judaism today — the voices of song — are in large measure due to the insight, brilliance and influence of Debbie Friedman.”
E-mail from Rabbi David Ellenson
(president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion).
Subject: From Rabbi David Ellenson: Debbie Friedman, z”l
To: HUC staff, faculty, students and alumni, and others:
It is with deep sadness that we inform you of the untimely death of Debbie Friedman early this Sunday morning. All of us at the College-Institute join Debbie’s family in mourning the loss of a beloved teacher and friend.
Debbie Friedman was sui generis. She had a unique ability to touch the lives of the people with whom she came into contact, and inspired an even larger community of people throughout the globe who were moved and inspired by her music. The students of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion were blessed by her devotion, and the faculty was enriched by her gifts and talents. Her words and her music will live on and shape the world of prayer in our synagogues and in the larger Jewish community for this and future generations.
The funeral will take place on Tuesday, January 11th at 11 am at Temple Beth Sholom; 2625 North Tustin Avenue; Santa Anna, California 92705.
Condolences may be sent to Debbie’s mother, Freda Friedman, and her sister, Cheryl Friedman at 844 Ronda Mendoza; Unit C; Laguna Woods, California 92637.
We are asked not to contact or visit the family prior to the funeral.
May her memory be a blessing.
IN MEMORIAM: DEBBIE FRIEDMAN, z”l
Debbie Friedman, world-renowned folk songwriter and performer, served as Instructor in Music at the School of Sacred Music of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, since July 1, 2007. Upon her move back to California this past summer in order to live closer to her mother and sister, she taught at HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus during the Fall semester. She was about to return to New York briefly to teach “Music as Midrash” as an intersession course, beginning Monday, January 10. The College-Institute honored Debbie Friedman’s enormous contributions to Jewish liturgy, spirituality, and worship in a tribute concert on November 12, 2009 at Central Synagogue.
“Debbie Friedman inspired our students through her creativity and musical talents, helped guide their spiritual and leadership development, and provided them with innovative strategies to transform congregations into communities of learning and meaning,” said Rabbi David Ellenson, President, HUC-JIR. Her teaching at HUC-JIR included “Music as Midrash,” a course for rabbinical, cantorial, and education students exploring the spiritual core of Jewish texts as a source for songs, sermons, and study. As an artist-in-residence, coached cantorial students and participate in services and other areas of the School of Sacred Music curriculum.
“It was kol isha (the voice of women) for col isha (every woman) that inspired me to write inclusive music,” said Debbie Friedman. “It is beneficial not only for women, but for men and children as well. Singing helps us learn how to be vocal. The more our voices are heard in song, the more we become our lyrics, our prayers, and our convictions.”
Friedman’s lyrical interpretations of liturgy and biblical verse have reached a generation of Jews looking to connect to the words of their heritage through music. A singer, songwriter, and guitarist, she recorded 19 albums, including many songs which have become so much a part of many synagogue’s liturgy as to be considered “traditional.”
In 1996 Friedman celebrated the 25th anniversary of her musical career with a concert at Carnegie Hall. She performed in hundreds of cities in the United States, Canada, Europe and Israel. She appeared before national conventions and conferences for major Jewish organizations, including the General Assembly of Jewish Federations, Hadassah, Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbinical Assembly, Cantors Assembly, Wexner Heritage Foundation, Whizin Institute, National Association of Temple Educators, National Association of Temple Administrators, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Women of Reform Judaism, World Union for Progressive Judaism, World Jewish Congress, American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, National Federation of Temple Youth, and United Synagogue Youth.
She served as cantorial soloist for three years at the New Reform Congregation in Los Angeles, California. As a music educator, she directed the music component of the intensive Hebrew Chalutzim program at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, where she continued to co-lead Hava Nashira, the annual song leading and music workshop she created. She served on the faculty of the Jewish Perspectives on Care at the End of Life Symposium at Duke University Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina; the Summer Institute for Jewish Educators, co-sponsored by the University of Judaism and the Whizin Institute in Los Angeles; HUC-JIR’s Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health; the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York; the Elat Chayyim Jewish Spiritual Retreat; the Brandeis Bardin Institute in Brandeis, California; and the Union for Reform Judaism’s summer Kallah programs held at Brandeis University, the University of California at Santa Cruz, and Franklin Pierce College.