Debbie Friedman: A Spiritual Legacy

I remember a family car ride to the end of Long Island.  I was 15 years old and my father decided it was his mission for me to become involved in the Jewish youth group.  So he played a cassette tape over and over until I agreed.  My family sat for hours in the boxy red Volvo, listening to the tape of Debbie Friedman, zichrona livracha (of blessed memory) leading a song-session at the 50th anniversary celebration of the North American Federation of Temple Youth.  Indeed, I went on to become involved in the Reform Jewish youth movement.  And, like Jews across the country and even the world, I was spiritually touched and changed by the music of Debbie Friedman and that of so many leaders whom she influenced.  Read the rest of this entry »


On Sunday, January 9, 2011, Debbie Friedman died at the age of 59.  The Jewish world mourns Debbie’s death even as we celebrate her transformative contribution to the spiritual journey of contemporary Jewish life.  For her 35-year career, Debbie Friedman defied a label.  She was a singer-songwriter, a song-leader, liturgist, recording artist, and spiritual visionary. 

Debbie Friedman forged a new path for liberal Jewish prayer and spiritual community.  Every leader of contemporary Jewish music understands Debbie as the visionary who changed the face of worship in Reform and beyond.  In a time when Reform Judaism was comfortable in the intellectual realm more than the emotional, Debbie combined the intellectual with the emotional to create an integrated whole. 

Debbie honored the intellectual curiosity and integrity that motivates people to understand the words of prayer.  She introduced English and combined English and Hebrew to help teach us our ancient traditions.  Favorites such as our healing prayer the Misheberach helped us rediscover out liturgical roots. 

With a foundation that included scholarly study of text and use of English, Debbie focused her music on themes of the soul.  She challenged us to turn inward to our spirit and outward to the souls that surround us.  Sing-able melodies and empowering leadership shaped generations of worshippers. Healing was not only the job of the physician, and prayer, not only the job of the rabbi.

Debbie challenged our sacred texts with a feminist lens.  Her songs celebrated heroines of the Bible, such as Miriam and Vashti.  And when the female voice or experience was missing in the text, she added it with her midrashic (interpretive) lyrics.  The song Lechi Lach, based on Abraham’s Lech Lecha journey in the Book of Genesis, adds feminine grammar to the Hebrew that opens this term of journey to women as well as men.

Our Reform Movement has already honored Debbie Friedman in important ways.  The most recent Reform prayerbook, Mishkan T’filah, recognized her contribution and canonized Debbie’s Misheberach.  In recent years, our Reform seminary Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Sacred Music recognized the need to bring Debbie’s teaching’s into the official curriculum of the Reform cantorate.   So Debbie Friedman became a professor at HUC-JIR.

Throughout the Reform Movement and here at Rodeph Shalom, we continue to be inspired by Debbie Friedman’s pursuit of transformation and spiritual healing, of relevance and meaning.