Three years ago, singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman officially joined the faculty of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion School of Sacred Music in New York. Now, that same school, which ordains Reform cantors, will bear her name.
Her brand of Jewish folk music, which became popular in the 1970s, was not always welcomed within the seminary walls. Many cantors, rabbis and others argued that Friedman’s songs, while fine for summer camp sing-alongs, weren’t appropriate in the synagogue. Some cantors, particularly those accustomed to the Classical Reform practices of operatic cantorial solos and professional choirs, worried Friedman’s popularity threatened “nusach,” traditional Jewish liturgical style.
The loss of Friedman, who died on Jan. 9 at the age of 59, has been widely mourned throughout the Jewish community, and it is clear that her influence was felt far beyond the Reform movement.
Without any formal musical training, Friedman helped make prayer more accessible, participatory and meaningful to many Jews. Her best-known piece, “Mi Shebeirach,” has become incorporated into the liturgy of many congregations.
“Debbie reminded us how to sing; she taught us how to sing,” noted Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in a tribute on the movement’s website.
We commend HUC for ensuring that Friedman’s legacy is honored and remembered for generations through The Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music.