Community: Debbie Friedman’s Gift to Us

by Mark Pelavin

I thought I knew the work of Debbie Friedman.  Debbie, whose second yahrzeit we observed this week, was a beloved and familiar presence at URJ Biennials, in our congregations, and at our camps.  I know that many of the melodies we sing, the songs that, as much as anything, bind us together as a Movement, are Debbie’s.  But last night I attended a moving tribute to her held at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, and I learned that however large I thought Debbie’s shadow loomed over us, I was not even close.

The tribute was not a concert; it was a kumsitz, an informal sing-along in her memory.  Some of the best known voices in Jewish music today—Josh Nelson, Peri Smilow, Michelle Citrin, Shira Klein, and a dozen more—led our singing, and they all spoke of how much they learned from Debbie.

I was struck by two things.  First, although I am pretty familiar with the Debbie Friedman songbook, I was amazed by the sheer volume of her contributions.  Song after song, melody after melody, including some I had not known were Debbie’s.  In a very real way, Debbie created the musical vocabulary that we all use today.  I think – and I hope this would make her smile – that her impact on the world of Jewish music is not unlike that of the Beatles in the world of popular music.  We have all assimilated so many of her songs, her lyrics, her melodies, that we don’t always even identify them as hers.  They are the common text our best musicians build upon today.

Second, and far more important, I could not stop thinking about Debbie’s “work product.”  It was her songs to be sure, and her teaching, and the uplift she personally brought to so many.  But as I sat in the chapel at HUC-JIR last night, joining hundreds of people – friends and strangers alike – in singing Debbie’s songs, it became clear that we are her real achievement – that we are a powerful and loving community.  I felt that sense of connection, of community, as deeply and richly last night as I have felt it in a long time.  That, I think, is Debbie’s real gift to us.

In Debbie’s wonderful song “The Youth Shall See Visions,” the chorus asks, “Give us time, give us strength, and give us life.”  Debbie, sadly, was not given time; she died much too soon.  But she had strength and life in abundance.  And our community is so much richer for it.

Mark Pelavin is Senior Advisor to the President at the Union for Reform Judaism.