NEW YORK – American Jewish singer and songwriter Debbie Friedman, who changed
the voice of American Jewish spirituality and prayer, died on Sunday in a
hospital in Orange County, California, sources from the Union for Reform Judaism
Friedman, who was born circa 1952, had been hospitalized with
Jewish Music: Reform phenomenon and real-deal Breslover
She started writing Jewish liturgical music as a group
songleader at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Olin-Sang- Ruby Union Institute
summer camp in the early 1970s, setting ancient texts to modern, accessible,
singable melodies. She published more than 19 albums of music inspired by
American folk music greats, using English and Hebrew lyrics and often, the
simple accompaniment of a guitar.
Friedman performed to sold-out
audiences at New York’s Carnegie Hall, as well as in hundreds of other cities
around the world. Her musical version of “Mi Sheberah,” the prayer for healing,
is used by hundreds of congregations across America. According to her website,
Friedman’s music is performed in synagogues around the world more than that of
any other modern composer.
“From the beginning of my career, I’ve tried
to help people see how prayer can be a source of comfort in both good times and
bad,” Friedman wrote on her website.
“This is particularly the case with
my latest CD, As You Go On Your Way: Shaharit – The Morning Prayers, which I
hope will give people the opportunity to pray in an intimate and personal way
with the goal of helping them get through these difficult
Elucidating her philosophy of rendering spirituality more
accessible through music, Friedman wrote: “I want to help people to begin their
day with an open heart; to learn to pray in a comfortable, non-threatening
Maybe, they’ll first experience it as music but, over time, they may learn the prayers.
“In this time of tremendous
uncertainty, when so many are feeling anxious and stressed, the comfort and
sense of peace that prayer brings is a wonderful thing. To be able to start your
day that way, is even better.”
Over the weekend, numerous rabbis told The
Jerusalem Post about the tremendous effect Friedman had on them as well as their
“When I was studying in rabbinical school at the Jewish
Theological Seminary in the late ’90s, it was not a very spiritual place,” Rabbi
Jason Miller of Farmington Hills, Michigan said.
In contrast, he
recalled, Friedman came to JTS to lead a healing service after a full-day
conference on prayer.
“Her energy electrified the Seminary’s synagogue
where students, faculty and guests were singing and dancing – I remember
thinking that if I could bottle up her ruah [spiritual energy] and sell it to
congregations, I’d be a billionaire,” Miller, who works for the Jewish Tamarack
Friedman’s music, Miller said, “adds so much life and
feeling to our liturgy.
Her ‘Mi Sheberach’ version has inspired Jews all
over the world to make a communal prayer for healing a staple of every Shabbat
Cantor Rosalie Boxt of Temple Emanuel in Kensington, Maryland,
said she believes Friedman’s potency came from giving ‘voice’ to new and more
modern texts and experience, as well as from giving permission to clergy and
congregants alike to express themselves fully.
“Her music in many ways
has become the tapestry of our people, tells the story of a generation of Jews –
through the joy of the State of Israel, of Torah texts that teach values of
justice and honor, and tefilot that share express our longing for God,” Boxt
said. “Her melodies bring texts to life about women, about hope, about joy and
about healing in ways few had done before her.
“Her melodies taught me
Jewish texts – Pirkei Avot, Psalms, The Prophets, Torah. Growing up, I learned
the words and values of our sacred texts through her stories and
Boxt was quick to say that Friedman’s strength extended beyond
her melodies into her clear love of teaching and music, which she’d communicate
to anyone who heard her sing.
“The reason so many around the world feel
close to Debbie, and call her ‘friend’ is because she, in leading worship or
performance, gives us permission to feel deeply,” Boxt said. “She gives fully of
herself and has opened a door for many to share their deepest hurts or their
purest joy. She asks people to be open to their truest hearts, to their longing
for the Divine, and for the need we have for love and friendship and for each
other. There is no pretense with Debbie, and her music and spirit have created a
growth in expression in Jewish music, liturgical and non[-liturgical], that
speaks to a Jewish community that wants to be fully engaged in prayer, in song,
and in learning,” she said.
“Debbie teaches me not only through her
music, but through her friendship and love, that it is okay to hurt and it is
okay to love,” Boxt continued. “She helps me grow as a cantor and a woman, to
allow my community to give back to me as much as I may give to it. She continues
to inspire me and so many others with her music, her strength, her commitment to
Torah and nusah [the style or melody of the prayer service], and to the Jewish
people of all backgrounds and experiences.”
Regardless of denominational
affiliation, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson of the American Jewish University in
Los Angeles, who holds the Abner & Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair at the
school’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, said that Friedman “has an impact
that transcends all the labels dividing Jewish life.”
“You can measure
her reach by the [way] virtually everyone uses her havdala melody, often without
knowing it,” Artson said, referring to the prayer marking the transition from
Sabbath to a new week. “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.”
On a personal note, Artson said that
Friedman “touched and elevated” his soul at every conference, adding that her
extended ‘Kaddish De-Rabbanan’ sessions “reached the darkest recesses of my
“Debbie is, and remains, one of a kind,” Artson said.