Though her music has long been part of worship services at Reform synagogues and she has been embraced by camp song leaders, Debbie Friedman has often felt disdained by many of the movement’s more “serious” music mavens, like the cantors.
That, however, has changed now that she has the official heksher of the movement’s most important educational training ground. Recently appointed to the faculty of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Sacred Music, Friedman is now involved in training the Reform movement’s cantors, rabbis and educators.
“David Ellenson [HUC-JIR president] called me, invited me to be a part of it, and how could I say no? It’s an incredible honor,” Friedman said in an interview this week. “I know how much I want people to be able to share what I do.”
Those who have had the opportunity to hear her lead prayer or perform in any of the numerous venues in which she has appeared — from the Reform movement biennial convention to Carnegie Hall — know that what she does is quite powerful. An amalgam of liturgical innovation with a style rooted in folk music, her songs combine ancient themes in Hebrew and English in a way easy for those who don’t really know Hebrew to catch on to. But the thing that comes through most clearly is Friedman’s ability to link her listeners with the sense that they are connected to the Divine presence.
“It just opens them up in a different way and allows them to experience prayer on a deeper level. She has opened up a way of prayer-leading in which she bares her soul, in a way that invites other people to be able to do the same,” says Angela Warnick Buchdahl, senior cantor at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue. According to Rabbi Ellenson, “Debbie’s appointment is recognition of the very key role that she has played in the revitalization and renewal of the contemporary synagogue. I’m ecstatic about it.” The position is being funded by a donor who does not want her name made public.
With no formal musical training, Friedman — soon after she first picked up a guitar at Wisconsin’s Camp Herzl at age 16 — began adapting Judaism’s central texts to contemporary sensibilities and writing songs that have become standard parts of non-Orthodox worship. Some of the best-known songs from her 22 albums — two more are on the way — are her version of the petition to God for healing, the “Mishebeyrach”; the song based on God’s instruction to Abraham to go forth into a new land, “Lechi Lach”; and her catchy version of the song praising God, “Hallelu.”
“She comes up with music you just can’t get out of your head,” says Warnick Buchdahl.
Friedman has lived in New York for just a dozen years, after growing up in Minnesota and living in California. Here, she says, she has found a haven.
“Coming to New York was the best thing I ever did. I love my dog and I love my neighbors and I live next door to a shul,” said the petite 56-year-old, who lives on the Upper West Side. “I love that I can walk everywhere I want to go.” Friedman has the genetic disease familial dystonia, which, when it flares up, can impair her mobility. But here in the city, “even if I’m not able to move around so well, I’m not totally homebound. There’s incredible life force in this city. There’s more waiting to happen here, a whole lot more waiting to happen.”
One of her neighborhood haunts is the JCC in Manhattan, where Friedman leads a monthly Jewish healing service that brings together 40-50 people to pray and sing.
She is eager to begin her work with students at the Reform seminary, on its campuses here and in Cincinnati and Los Angeles. “What I want to teach more than anything is the love of the text,” she says.
“What I want to do with the students is help them integrate the prayer into their lives so they become the text when they’re on the bima. So there’s really no separation between them and the text. … To ask themselves, ‘How can this prayer function to have some kind of impact on my life and the congregant’s life?’”
The central question for today’s Jewish spiritual leaders is, Friedman says, “Am I going to sing at the congregation or will I try to engage them and help them cross the line from the cerebral experience into a world of prayer into which they weren’t expecting to move?”