Jewish Journal

Remembering Debbie Friedman: A collection from community leaders

Posted on Jan. 10, 2011 at 3:39 pm

[UPDATE] Debbie Friedman’s Funeral - Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011, 11 am [LIVE VIDEO] - available here.

Debbie was more than a singer, songwriter and performer; she was a teacher.

I first met Debbie at the third Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education at UC Irvine in August, 1977. Many of the 700 people there had never heard of her; I knew that she was a song leader working in Texas. Stuart Kelman, Joel Grishaver and I asked her to close the conference. What she did with the audience of educators that evening was absolutely magical. She told us she was proud to be a Jewish teacher. She was funny, with a twinkle in her eye. She sang us a little song she had written for her religious school kids - “Aleph, Bet, Veit.” Then, “Not by Might, Not by Power.” Then, “Miriam’s Song.” And on and on. She insisted “this isn’t a performance, let’s sing together.” And sing we did. She taught us the words; she repeated the melody until we had it. She got us on our feet, arms around each other. We were uplifted and inspired.

It was later that night when I witnessed the generosity of spirit of this remarkable woman. After the concert, she invited everyone to join her in a kumsitz. We sang for hours. Some people brought guitars. Debbie encouraged them to take the lead, to share their music. One of them was a young man from Los Angeles - Craig Taubman. They had never met. As Craig sang “Yad b’Yad,” Debbie sat back and smiled a smile of recognition, a smile of welcome, a smile of mentorship.

Debbie loved teaching and she loved people. She had the gift of creating an instant bond with her “students.” Once her music became so universally recognized, her appearances became more like folk rock concerts, everyone singing along on every song. Except one. When Debbie began singing her “Mi Shebeirach” and the crowd began to sing, Debbie would gently hush them. “Don’t sing,” she would whisper. “This is for you.” What a gift she gave us in that moment.

There is no doubt that Debbie pioneered what has been called by Rabbi Les Bronstein “a new American nusach.” Her melodies transformed worship in hundreds of synagogues across the denominations and touched the souls of countless people, leading many to experience the spiritual goose bumps that come from raising one’s voice in prayer.

Yes, Debbie taught us to sing. But, most of all, Debbie called on God “to help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing.” May her memory and her music always be a blessing, and let us say, “Amen.”

Dr. Ron Wolfson, Fingerhut Professor of Education, American Jewish University, Co-President, Synagogue 3000

I first met Debbie Friedman at Kutz Camp 40 years ago; she had a great voice, played guitar beautifully, and was becoming a songleader. Ever since, I’ve watched her grow to become a leader of the renaissance of Jewish music. She created songs that touched generations of Jews, old and young. Though not trained musically, she had an intuitive understanding of what touched people’s hearts and moved their souls. Her music, once thought counter-cultural, became mainstream: from Jewish folk singer she became a faculty member of Hebrew Union College and taught cantors.  She will live on in her spirit and her song and her music.

Rabbi Morley Feinstein, University Synagogue, Los Angeles

Debbie Friedman has an impact that transcends all the labels dividing Jewish life. You can measure her reach by the fact that virtually everyone uses her havdalah melody, often without knowing it. You can measure her impact by the fact that there is a rich profession of contemporary Jewish music when none existed outside the cantorate before her. You can measure her gift by the way it feels natural now to learn and sing Torah in women’s voices and in women’s words. And you can savor her gift in the bountiful harvest of her enormous collection of spirited and spiritual songs. How many congregations now muster spiritual energy for the sick with her words and melody?

On a personal note, Debbie touched and elevated my soul at every CAJE conference, where her extended “Kaddish De-Rabbanan” sessions with Rabbi Stuart Kelman reached the darkest recesses of my heart, and where her annual conferences reminded us what a privilege it is to be a Jewish educator. Debbie is, and remains, one of a kind.

Rabbi Brad Artson, Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair
Vice President, American Jewish University

I grew up singing Debbie Friedman’s wonderful songs during all of my years at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu.  There is nothing quite like being in the middle of the dining room full of 200-plus children singing out “Not By Might, Not By Fire” or dancing away to “Miriam’s Song,” which was always a staple at nearly every song session at camp.

I was lucky enough to go to a Debbie Friedman concert many years back at the Pasadena Playhouse.  Yes, we sat way up in the last two rows of the balcony, and yes, she looked like a tiny dot up there on stage, and, yes, we were surrounded by many people.  But when she opened her mouth and belted out those familiar tunes, we all grew up with it felt like we were right there in front of her and that she singing just for us.

The one thing that stands out most from that evening (aside from it still being one of the most fun concerts I have ever been to) was that it was the never-ending show!  She would sing her last song, leave the stage and return for an encore…which turned into 2 or 3 songs.  Then she would leave the stage again, with the audience on their feet, and return to sing as she said “one last song.”  To which she looked around and said “OK, that was the second to last song…here is the last song!”

Debbie Friedman made a huge impact in the world of Jewish music, and she will truly be missed by all who have been touched by her music.

Elizabeth Cobrin

I initially met Debbie when I was hired to write her website, and we quickly became friends. Over the next couple of years, I promoted her work and she was always so appreciative of every newspaper, radio and TV interview that we got. One day, I received a beautiful card in which she thanked me, quite eloquently, for all of my work on her behalf. It meant so much to me and it also reflected the kind of person that Debbie was: modest, kind and grateful for all that she had achieved. It was an honor to work with her but it was more of an honor to call her my friend. 

Cheryl Azair

Liberal Judaism’s Shlomo Carlebach, Debbie Friedman picked up Jewish music where it had left off in the ’70s, when religion went out of style, and brought it back in songs of surprising poignancy and staying power. I will always remember her occasional visits to the Mountaintop Minyan in Los Angeles in the early ’90s, dueting guitars with (now Cantor) Linda Kates.  It was a small crew, probably 25 of us or less, who would stay after Rabbi Mordecai Finley’s Shabbat morning service, which was followed by a potluck lunch.  When the lunch was over, Dennis Prager, Howard Secoff z"l and Linda would lead those of us still there in bentching, followed by songs accompanied by a guitar or two and sometimes David Kates on piano.  When Debbie was there, it would just go on and on and on, and I can hear the richness of steel strings, harmony and feelings down these many years.

Joelle Keene, Music and journalism teacher, Shalhevet High School, Los Angeles

Debbie Friedman was without question the soundtrack of Jewish life for over three decades. In the fine tradition of King David and his harp, she lifted the souls and inspired the spirits of all who heard her. Her legacy will continue for generations.

Selwyn Gerber

I did not know Debbie very well, but I did have the privilege of spending a few days with her in Sao Paulo Brazil, at a conference for the Union for Progressive Judaism, where she was the featured performer and I was the scholar in residence. For a few days, we shared meals, and davened together, and watched each other “perform.” I gave my speeches and classes, and then watched as Debbie gave a concert and led tefilot together with a group of Argentinian Jewish women and other South American leaders and lay leaders. It was truly amazing to see the broad impact of Debbie’s music, how she shared the language of music and prayer with English and non-English speaking people alike and how her music served as an inspiration to men and women not just from the U.S. but also from Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina as well.

More recently, Debbie joined the HUC faculty, so I had the privilege of seeing her regularly in the elevator and in the chapel in the New York school. I came to regard her as a regular fixture of the campus. When I told my kids this evening about her passing, and explained to them that she was the person who wrote that melody for havdalah that they sing at (Orthodox) Camp Moshava, they said, “She died? That nice lady?” They had gotten used to seeing her yearly at the HUC New York school annual retreat, where they and the kids of another faculty member did a yearly fundraising project. One year, the kids made mosaic trivets and sold them to the students and faculty members, and Debbie bought a few, but didn’t actually take them at the end of the day. “She just wanted to donate the money and recognize what we were doing.” That had a big impact on them, that she was moved to give tzedakah that way. Shara had a rough time processing that a woman who spent so much time singing healing prayers for others succumbed to illness in this way. That is the toughest thing for all of us. to take. What a loss.

Wendy Zierler, Associate Professor, Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies, Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion, New York

Debbie Friedman is simply the single most transformative Jewish musical genius of the second half of the 20th century.  All current Jewish popular music is a footnote on her magnificent contribution to Jewish life, culture, and spirit.  My family was priviledged to work with her during my tenure as director of Brandeis Collegiate Institute in 1986, where she served as the music director for part of the summer.  Needless to say, there are 60 BCIers, now in their 40s and 50s who will never forget the sounds of summer, of Debbie, and of standing on a hill on the last Shabbat singing “L’chi Lach” as they departed for their own journeys through life.  May we all be a blessing in her name.

Dr. Bruce Powell, Head of School, New Community Jewish High School

I was deeply touched by Debbie’s music, first hearing her melodies as child growing up in St. Louis,  where she taught.  When I taught myself to play guitar, chords to her songs were some of the first I learned—and eventually taught at youth group and Hillel student gatherings.  Now, my children sing her songs—and we remember fondly the last concert she performed at Temple Beth Am in 2006.

Debbie will live through her music, which will forever remain in our hearts.

Sheryl Goldman, Executive Director, Temple Beth Am, Los Angeles

Ten years ago, when the process of my becoming Jewish was culminating, I went in search of Jewish music, CDs I could play at home or in my car. (This was pre-iTunes.) Of course Debbie Friedman was at the top of my list. I innocently walked into an Orthodox Judaica store along Beverly Boulevard here in Los Angeles and, after browsing their music CD collection, asked the woman at the counter, “Do you have anything by Debbie Friedman?”

“We don’t get much call for women’s voices here,” she said matter of factly.

Her simple statement summed up not only why I am grateful for liberal Judaism and all it that it means in the world, but also why I am so grateful for the matriarchs of my own Jewish universe—for BCC’s Rabbi Lisa Edwards her wife, Rebbetzin Tracy Moore, and cantor emerita Fran Chalin, for fellow congregants like Harriet Perl, Barbara Kroll, Ruth Spielman, Bracha Yael, Davi Cheng, Tamara Klein, for inspirational interpreters of our texts and our history like Benay Lappe and Maggie Anton Parkhurst and Rachel Timoner and Lindy Davidson, and on and on—for all my women teachers and service leaders, musicians and singers, “Imahot” and friends. All those women’s voices that found their calling and answered it, with passion and transformational power and with a legacy that will long outlast each one of them.

Sylvia Sukop. Member, Beth Chayim Chadashim

I first heard Debbie’s music as a college sophomore in 1975, when I participated in a demonstration to call attention to the plight of Soviet Jews at the United Nations’ “Isaiah” wall. A group of NFTY (National Federation of Temple Youth) members were singing “Not By Might and Not By Power.” I was very moved by this song, based on Zechariah 4:6, which was perfect for the occasion: “Not by might and not by power, but by spirit alone shall we all live in peace. The children sing, the children dream, and their tears may fall, but we’ll hear them call and another song will rise, another song will rise, another song will rise!” At the end of the song, the NFTY kids yelled “Spirit,” which, at that point, was pretty much all we had to keep alive the hope of rescuing the Jews of the Soviet Union. Ten years later, during production of “Dreams and Visions,” the documentary film on the intergenerational Fairfax Community Mural Project, Debbie graciously permitted us to use royalty-free her song “And the Youth Shall See Visions,” adapted from Joel 2:28: “And the old shall dream dreams, and the youth shall see visions, And our hopes shall rise up to the sky. We must live for today; we must build for tomorrow.

Give us time, give us strength, give us life.” Ever since, during countless synagogue and camp services, rallies and communal celebrations (not to mention numerous live concerts), at lifecycle events like our nieces’ Brit Bat ceremonies, at our wedding, at the shiva minyanim following my late father’s passing, Debbie’s words and music have been a great source of inspiration, joy, healing, and comfort. Zichronah livrachah, as her life has been, so may her memory continue to be a blessing.

Stephen Sass, President, Jewish Historical Society of Southern California/Breed Street Shul Project


Debbie and I both came from NoFTY, where, before she was the “famous” Debbie Friedman, she used to lead about 200 of us teenagers at conclaves in song sessions. As she led us, we’d sing in gorgeous two- and three-part harmonies. It was a spiritual experience, because, as Debbie knew so well, there is a power to bringing people together in song. But she also knew how to lead people in song like no other. It was because of how she led us that we were inspired so deeply.

She inspired me and connected me so strongly to my Judaism and Jewish music through her melodies,  that I just naturally fell into becoming a song leader myself. Through the experience of song sessions with Debbie Judaism felt meaningful in a very deep way. Then I came out to LA from Milwaukee, to become the Music Director at Camp Hess Kramer of Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps, and then various schools and temples where I hopefully touched other peoples’ lives as she had touched mine through music.

I was deeply honored when she would ask me to take her place when she could not make a service she was to lead.

Debbie and I would connect on and off through the years. Most recently we connected at a small NoFTY reunion at OSRUI in Wisconsin where we sang all night long. We’re in the midst of planning the next one.

I am grateful for the many blessings she has given us.

My heart hurts as I will miss her presence on this earth.

Wendy Becker, Performer/Singer/Cantorial Soloist, IKAR member

I first met Debbie Friedman at the Brandies Camp Institute (BCI)  June Aliya 1986.  I followed in my mom’s footsteps from the 1950’s and experienced a whole new world of Judaism. My mom was a BCIer when founder Shlomo Bardin challenged her by asking why was an Orthodox Jewish girl attending his program.  She stated she had more to learn and others could learn from her.  As a graduate of Yeshiva day school and high school and two years of Yeshiva University, I had more to learn as well. Not so much the textual aspects of Judaism, but the cultural aspects that are expressed in song, dance, art, appreciation of Israel and respect for different religious practices.  Armed with a one word recommendation from Bruce Powell (my high School principal and the program’s director) that said “Mentch” and his challenge that you will learn and others will learn from you, I drove down the entrance of BCI on Pepper Tree Lane not knowing what to expect.

After learning to dance four Israeli dances in the matter of 15 minutes, we had our first singing session with Debbie.  The songs were all new to me, but the words I knew.  They were mostly from prayer and psalms but in English and beautiful tunes and inspirational harmony.  She transformed us into a group.  At the end of the hour I walked up to her and flatly said “wow you are really good.”  I had no idea who she was. Not her religious affiliation, career success, influence on thousands.  All I knew was that she made music that deepened my and commitment and love of Jewish tradition.

Her rendition of the first paragraph of Shema Yisreal brought new meaning to the prayer.  Oseah Shalom showed me how much fun singing harmony could be. I later used the song at my audition for the Belz School of Jewish Music.  Dodi Li was so moving, I sang it on my wedding day to my wife as she walked down the aisle to the Chuppa.  I saw others influenced by her music as well.  Most notably was Rabbi Dr. Levi Meir, the first Chaplin of Cedar Sinai Medical Center.  I once visited him in his office, and he was dancing to “Not by Might, Not By Power.”

As I write this, I just listed to the simulcast of JM in the AM in the New York Area, and they play her Aleph Bet song.  JM in the AM primarily plays Mordichai Ben David, Lipa Smeltzer and other mostly male orthodox entertainers.  But every so often, like Tu Behshvat, Chanukah and other holiday times, they play Debbie’s songs.  Today Nachum Segal, the show’s host for 25 plus years, praised her stating “she has done more to teach the Aleph Bet to a multitude of Jewish children than many others.”

She will be missed, but her music, spirit and influence live on.  For that I am grateful.

Jonathan J Wernick, Pico Robertson

Debbie was my spiritual rock star.  Her music and lyrics inspired me to rejoice with abandon, pray with kavannah, and embrace the possibility of healing and renewal.  Her tribute, among many, is that we sang her songs in praying for her recovery, and now turn to them for comfort.  I will keep singing them after she is gone, and remember her lovingly in the process.

Elana Rimmon Zimmerman

I, too, am mourning the loss of Debbie Friedman. I adored her music and listened to it in my car, in my home, on the holidays (singing along of course!), she had a calming affect on me and paradoxically,  an uplifting feeling stirred with my soul while listening to her. I could NOT listen to the song, Mi Shebeirach, EVER, without tears streaming down my face. It is so gorgeous. I was fortunate enough to see her in concert many years ago and she left an indelible imprint on my mind. She was a force, an energetic, extremely talented Icon who will be missed in our community. I have all of her cd’s but was in a Jewish music store the other day and just for the heck of it, thinking maybe I had missed her last CD, asked if they had any Debbie Friedman cds left. The proprietor told me GONE, and, yes, Debbie, you are gone, but you will live on in my heart and those of millions of people around the world. You have left your mark and touched millions of lives, including my own. Thank you for your gorgeous gift of music and Judaism that you permanently imbedded in my soul. I will remember you forever.

Leslie Magidsohn, Northridge, California

My memory goes way back in time to the mid ‘70s when Debbie was a camp counselor in Okonomowoc, Wisconsin.  I attended a Jewish summer camp and was inspired by how she took prayers and made them “sing.”  I was 14, 15 at the time and she was an older teenager who reminded me of those ‘60s rebellious types and whose music sounded like Judy Collins or Joan Baez.  When I was older living in LA, I would speak to her on occasion and congratulate her on her musical successes.  I reached back last year and did not hear back and would’ve liked one more chance to reminisce.  Perhaps her illness had set in.  I still think back at those nights at camp under the stars singing songs that she wrote like it was yesterday.

Zach Rosenberg


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