This week closes with Shabbat Shira, named for the “Song of the Sea.” At the end of these verses, Miriam the Prophet lifted her timbrel and led the women in song and dance. For centuries these particular words were unsung.
Then along came Debbie Friedman. Her music raised them to God and changed us forever.
On Jan. 11, 1,000 American Jews gathered at a synagogue in Orange County, and more than 7,000 via live stream video, to bid farewell to our beloved Debbie. Her timbrel was a guitar, and her voice led us out of a barren enslavement.
Debbie’s leadership was something new. It wasn’t hierarchical. She rejected performance in worship. She urged us to discover our spirit through singing together — and we would come to understand and own a spirituality that included one another.
She was the quintessential American Jewish folk singer, honoring the power of group singing through accessible but meaningful lyrics and melodies.
Nowhere was her vision more transformative than within the Reform movement that raised and nurtured her. A child of NFTY, URJ camps and song leader training programs, Debbie, in turn, led the musical revolution that shifted our worship from performance to participation. Though it took time for the musical establishment to appreciate her, the people rapidly elevated her to living legend status.
I first met Debbie in 1969 at the URJ Kutz Camp in Warwick, N.Y., singing and then imagining together what might be possible. We both were immersed in creating new melodies. But Debbie’s music surpassed all; she was prolific.
At first she was all Jewish, all Hebrew, all the time. She was committed to Israel and the Hebrew language. Her music was didactic: remember purple Barney singing the alef-bet? Later, she experimented mixing Hebrew with creative translation or poetry to clarify
the meaning of the text or prayer. Her lyrics were midrash, subtly and permanently transforming our understanding of an ancient text. All her songs were easy to learn and memorize.
With new albums every year or two and an extensive touring schedule, her music began to fill our lives. The songs became the norm for our youth, and as that youth grew into synagogue leadership, those beloved melodies became mainstream.
A woman of exceptionally high standards, she was also a gracious and generous musical friend. At every concert she invited cantors and rabbis to sing with her; harmonizing at her side was always my great joy.
Debbie reveled in the musical success of her colleagues and students. How grateful we are for her service to the Hava Nashira song leader training program, her ongoing presence at Adult Study Kallot, CAJE conferences and URJ conventions, for her devotion over the past few years as a Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion faculty member in New York and Los Angeles. Debbie highlighted almost every major Jewish organizational conference for over 30 years.
But her greatest gift was how she helped us to sing our souls, confronting our fears, declaring our values, affirming our hopes. Consider these uplifting anthems:
• “L’chi Lach” recast God’s directive to Abraham as a universal prayer to forge into the unknown, and urged us to shape our lives as a blessing to others. The words explicitly highlighted women, and along with “Miriam’s Song,” marked the impact of feminism on our Jewish lives.
• “Mi Shebeirach” revived the prayer for healing in hundreds of synagogues. Infusing an ancient formula with contemporary words and melody, she revitalized the power of a communal prayer for healing. “Healing” and “Debbie Friedman” became synonymous.
• “Tefilat HaDerech” recaptured the traditional traveler’s blessing, this time entirely in English, and also communal. “May this be our blessing, amen.”
How ironic that Debbie died this week; parshat Beshalach contains the first Torah verses of a woman as explicit leader, musician and prophetess. Debbie was the inheritor of Miriam’s timbrel. Like Miriam, Debbie Friedman’s spirit is eternal.
Zichrona livracha. May you be blessed as you go on your way. You have blessed ours.
Rabbi Daniel Hillel Freelander is the senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism. With Cantor Jeff Klepper, he composed many contemporary Jewish melodies, including “Shalom Rav” and “Lo Alecha.” He and Debbie Friedman were friends for over 40 years.