In Joshua’s Shoes: A Tribute to Debbie Friedman (z”l)

Students and Faculty Leading Songs

Even though I am a musician, it isn’t often that I stop and think about the  influence that composers or musicians have had on Jewish life. But when Debbie Friedman died in January, I realized the incredible affect she had on people all over the world. She was a teacher, a song leader, a role model, a composer a performer and an incredible influence and she will be missed greatly throughout the Jewish world.

Within days of her death, the HUC community and the Progressive community here in Israel began organizing a concert in honor of her life and her contributions. In preparing to be a part of the evening and to perform in it, I started to get a grasp of the incredible variety of songs and prayers, what I did not anticipate was the turn out to the event and the emotion that would fill the room.

At first I thought we were going to be in the Murstein Synagogue , the sanctuary on campus that could hold somewhere close to 200 people. At our final rehearsal I learned that the concert was going to be in the hall at Mercaz Shimshon, which has a capacity I do not even want to guess at, and to my surprise the place was packed.

But it was not only full of people.

Within seconds of the first few words being sung, the cavernous hall was filled with the ruach (spirit) that I have come to associate with Debbie’s music. The musicians on stage were more song leaders than performers as the crowd sang along with the familiar melodies, almost everyone singing almost every word.

The tribute was interspersed with people sharing ways that she had affected their lives and it was apparent that she had touched so many people, especially in the USA. But her influence was not confined to North America.

Around me, throughout the night, I could hear many Israeli’s losing themselves in the music. The shock that washed over the audience when it was announced that Rabbi Chasen was playing one of her guitars that evening sent a shiver down my spine (one that was not matched until I had the chance to play that guitar after the concert was finished).

A Group of Noar Telem Teens

The performances were not limited to the students and faculty of HUC. Noar Telem, the Youth Movement of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), had put together a group of teens that lead us in Oseh Shalom, singing a melody that I learned  so many years ago. It was one of the more moving parts of the night, hearing her music lead by teens born and raised in Israel.

She had an influence across the world. One of my rabbis in the Twin Cities had told me a similar story and I had to laugh when I realized his could not have been a unique experience.

It seems that Debbie Friedman’s music has been transmitted throughout the world. When a traveler has asked, “Where did that melody come from?” The response was, “Mi Sinai!” (from Mount Sinai), implying that the origin of the melody was less important than the way it moves you.

Leading Havdallah

As the evening closed with a the song, “Mourning into Dancing” and a Havdalah service we were reminded of something important, it doesn’t do well to dwell on loss. It would be easy to for me to be upset at the lost opportunity to learn from Debbie Friedman directly, or to think about the loss of someone who has had a profound influence of contemporary Jewish music. Instead, I can focus on the impact that her music had on me, my classmates and my future colleges. I can see the impact that her music has had on people in the US and across the world.

I am glad that I had an opportunity to take part in remembering Debbie Friedman and her music, and in large part I owe a huge thanks to the IMPJ, HUC the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and NFTY in Israel for sponsoring the evening in tribute to Debbie Lynn Friedman.

Zichrona Livracha, may her memory be a blessing.

(Photos: Rayna Dushman)

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About Brian Nelson

Brian Nelson has spent the last 25 years living in or near Minneapolis. After completing a B.A. in History at the University of Minnesota, he worked for Temple Israel, Mount Zion and Bet Shalom in a variety of capacities. While working in the Reform Movement, Brian developed a passion for Reform Judaism and is currently studying at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in the Rabbinical School.

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  1. Normally I wouldn’t post a comment on my own post, but I was at services tonight at Shira Chadasha, the Orthodox-Egalitarian community in Jerusalem, and the leader for Kabbalat Shabbat led us with Debbie Friedman’s melody of Oseh Shalom for L’cha Dodi. It was beautiful.

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