The week Debbie Friedman died was Shabbat Shira, named for the “Song of the Sea.” At the end of these verses, read in congregations around the world, Miriam the Prophet lifted her timbrel and led the women in song and dance. For centuries these verses were noted but not emulated by the male dominated Jewish musical scene. Then along came Debbie Friedman. She reminded us how women’s voices can lead and inspire us. Her voice and her music have changed us.
On Jan. 11, 2011, 1,000 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 women—and men—in a powerful celebration of Jewish spirituality and community.
She was the quintessential American Jewish folk singer, honoring the power of group singing through accessible melodies and meaningful lyrics in both Hebrew and English.
Nowhere was her vision more transformative than within our 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. 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 Reform youth, and as that youth grew into synagogue leadership, the beloved melodies became mainstream, filling Reform Movement sanctuaries. Her lyrics, echoing from camps to classrooms to congregations, were midrash, subtly and permanently transforming our understanding of ancient texts.
Debbie also highlighted almost every major Reform conference for more than 30 years—from Biennial conventions and adult study kallot to the Hava Nashira song leader training program—and she served devotedly as a Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion faculty member in both New York
and Los Angeles.
Yet her greatest gift was helping us to sing our souls, confront our fears, declare our values, and
affirm our hopes.
Debbie sang, “And you shall be a blessing….” She was a blessing to us and our Movement. Zichrona Livracha. May her memory and her music continue to bless us.
Rabbi Daniel Hillel Friedlander is the senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism.