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Remembering Debbie Friedman

If you want to feel the pulse of a camp community you have only to stand in the  chadar ochel – the dining room – when a whole camp sings together.  When the community is strong and spirited, the ruach – spirit – of a song session is transcendent and contagious.  When a community is in need of repair, a skilled song leader can use the power of music and singing to mend what is broken.

My generation of Jewish campers  grew up singing in countless song sessions and worship services in NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) and at camp in the 70’s and 80’s, which means I don’t remember a Reform Jewish Movement that didn’t punctuate every moment with the power of song.  Debbie Friedman created a new genre of Jewish music that democratized prayer by including both Hebrew and English, and that was meant for the community to sing unto God together “not by might and not by power, but by spirit alone.”  Influenced by those like Pete Seeger and Peter Yarrow, Debbie infused meaning into singing together and gave us moments that echo to this day. Rabbi Daniel Freelander, Vice President of the Union for Reform Judaism and an influential Jewish composer and musician, notes that Debbie “wrote melodies that spoke to us, spoke to our intellect, and spoke to our emotions.”   Sue Fishkoff, writing in 2007 on Debbie Friedman’s appointment to the faculty of the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, explained, “When the diminutive Friedman takes up her guitar in front of 1,000 people, tilts her face skyward and lets that rich, yearning voice pour out, the tears often flow.”

During my time as the Director of the URJ Kutz Camp and NFTY, I got to know Debbie personally; she spent time at camp regularly, she joined with and performed for NFTYites at many NFTY Conventions, and I was honored to help craft the URJ Biennial Tribute to her in 2007 in San Diego.  Despite her  health challenges, she was always and simply luminous.  And voraciously funny.  And a perfectionist.  She liked things the way she liked them.  She drank Perrier and only Perrier.  For those of us involved on the production end of things, she, frankly, drove us a little crazy – and we savored every moment of it.

Debbie and her music were created at Jewish summer camp, and she, in turn, created Jewish summer camp.  The  magic achieved at camp through Debbie’s music and songleading soon poured out of camps around the country and into virtually every liberal synagogue today.  More than any other person, Debbie brought  the notion of communal prayer and singing unto to God  to life in a modern age. Through the years, the music of Debbie’s soul  has been with me  through times of joy, through times of despair, and through times of prayer .  I now revel in my own daughter, Emma  – now a camper at the URJ Eisner Camp – who sings “Not By Might and Not By Power” with the same joy that I did and still do. Watching Emma sing brings me comfort to know that Debbie’s music and ruach will live on and reach generations to come.

- Rabbi Eve Rudin is the Director of Camp Excellence and Advancement for the Foundation for Jewish Camp. She previously served as the Director of the URJ Kutz Camp and NFTY for the Reform Jewish Movement.

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Congregation Beth El. Congregation Beth El said: RT @JewishCamp: Remembering #DebbieFriedman: her #music and her impact on generations of #Jewish campers http://ow.ly/3BbQF #jewishcamp [...]

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