Debbie Friedman and Rabbi Amy Small in 2007 at CBH

In 1981 I attended my first CAJE conference (the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education.) As a young Jewish educator, the experience was invigorating, inspiring, uplifting and transformative. I came home from CAJE and began the process of applying to rabbinical school.

One reason for the power of the experience was my first exposure to Debbie Friedman. Debbie was not only an extraordinary performer at the conference, but she was also a gifted teacher of a new brand of Jewish music. And she became a friend to many of us; so many of us were young twenty-somethings just like her, and we shared a love of being Jewish and a dedication to passing that love to everyone else. Debbie’s music gave us beautiful, engaging, contemporary, singable songs that brought Judaism to life for our generation. It made everything seem possible as Jewish educators.

I recall sitting in a basement common room in a dorm at Oberlin College at that CAJE with Debbie leading a kumsitz (a sing-along.) We sang for hours and hours. We didn’t need fancy bands or techno-accompaniment. Just Debbie and her guitar — it was magical.

Many of us returned year after year to CAJE, in those days it was the gathering place for the young upstarts who believed we could change Jewish education, making it fun, compelling and powerful. We looked forward to Debbie’s performances and workshops as our annual “fix” of our soul’s uplifting. We loved hearing her new songs as her repertoire expanded and we learned every word and melody.

Debbie began an annual choir at CAJE — those of us who chose this option spent time every day learning with Debbie and preparing for the concert on the last night of the conference when we would sing with her on stage. We soaked in every moment of Debbie’s music and humor and her genius as a teacher and song leader.

And Debbie was funny. She had a great sense of humor — she could be spontaneously silly, even when times were tough. Her performances were laced with her own narrative and often infused with much laughter.

So the years at CAJE and being in Debbie’s choir gave me the gift of time with her as a friend. She had a way of making everyone feel like family; she was so affirming and warm.

Around 15 years ago I had some personal difficulties and wanted to create a ritual of healing for myself and for others who could then benefit from my experience. So I approached Debbie and asked her if we could write it together, including original music. She loved the idea and encouraged me to call her to make time to work on the ritual together. But then life got in the way and I didn’t get to it. I moved on. The next couple of times I saw Debbie we spoke again about doing this, and she again expressed her enthusiasm for doing this with me. What a shame that my life direction took me away from this — I never did get to this project. Even years after the first idea, when I saw Debbie a couple of years ago, she encouraged me to work with her. I just thought I would get to it — one of those “someday” wishes that we sometimes lose in the noise of the everyday. And now there is no longer a someday. I missed the chance, and I am deeply saddened.

Several years ago I served as the rabbi on a Metrowest UJC mission to Cherkassy, Ukraine, to visit our partnership community there. I was asked to lead Shabbat services on Friday night. Before the service, I met with the women who are the lay leaders who have been leading services for the community. I asked them one at a time which melody they use for each prayer, and they kept saying “the traditional” melody. I asked them to sing a little bit of each one, and all of the melodies were Debbie Friedman’s melodies (which I thankfully knew by heart.) How did Debbie’s melodies come to be the ones they viewed as traditional? I later learned that Debbie had been to Ukraine a couple of years earlier to train Jewish educators in communities that were reclaiming Jewish practice for the first time in 3-4 generations. Anyway, a few months after my visit to Cherkassy, Debbie performed at the Community Theatre in Morristown. Our family went to hear her, of course. After the performance, Debbie invited me to come backstage to hang out. It was Chanukah and she was snacking on sufganiyot (jelly donuts) and insisted that I share hers with her– this was her way.  I told her about the experience in Cherkassy and it just delighted her.

I can’t remember how many times I have attended Debbie’s performances, there have been so many over the years. For that I feel so truly blessed. I was so proud to have Debbie perform for my community, Congregation Beth Hatikvah, in 2007. We shmoozed in my office before the performance and it was such a warm and loving reunion. Debbie brought me on stage to sing with her during the performance and I was just transported. It was a very special day.

Debbie transformed American Judaism, infusing our worship and ritual with joy and meaning. All of the contemporary singer-song writers in the non-Orthodox Jewish world are indebted to her. She profoundly impacted so many of us on a personal level. I was blessed to have had the gift of her music, her teaching and her warmth.

A light has gone out of the world. I pray that Debbie’s music will help us to find our way. May her memory always be for blessing.
“And you shall be a blessing, lechi lach…”

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