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February 2011 Outreach Newsletter

Remembering Debbie Friedman/The Music Connected Me/Music Speaks Louder Than Words

Union for Reform Judaism Talking Outreach
Website | Subscribe | Donate February 10, 2011 | 6th Adar 5771
> As We Sing Miriam's Song,
We Remember Her Protégé
> The Music Connected Me
> Music Speaks Louder Than Words
> Soundtrack of Our Jewish Lives
> Schindler Fellows Program
> URJ Incubator Grant Winners
> Belin Awards
> Reform Judaism Magazine

Dear Outreach Chairs,

"When I first attended Friday night Shabbat services, it was all so confusing: the Hebrew, the prayers, the standing and sitting. The one thing that I could relate to from the beginning was the melodies; they seemed to invite me to join in. Long before I had the courage to learn to read Hebrew or take Introduction to Judaism, I could sing along with the congregation."

These words from a woman who converted to Judaism express the thoughts and feelings of many people for whom Jewish music is their entry point to finding their Jewish identity. Whether it is the magnificence of Avinu Malkeinu during the High Holy Days, an inviting modern song or a moving prayer written by Debbie Friedman, Jewish music transcends the meaning of the words and makes it possible for so many individuals to feel that they are a part of the community.

As we look at Jewish music in this issue of Talking Outreach, let us invite those who are new, have been distant, are young or have been active for years to celebrate all the ways that Jewish music has touched our lives. Learn about the ways Jewish music has enriched so many lives and share your Jewish music stories on the blog.

As always, we at the Union for Reform Judaism are here to assist you and your congregations. Don't hesitate to call on us.


Victor AppellRabbi Victor Appell
Marketing, Outreach and New Communities Specialist
Time Zone: Eastern

 ChernowArlene Chernow
Outreach Specialist
Time Zone: Pacific

Vicky FarhiVicky Farhi
Outreach Specialist
Time Zone: Eastern

Stephanie FinkStephanie Fink
Outreach Specialist
Time Zone: Central
212.452.6792, T-Th

As We Sing Miriam's Song, We Remember Her Protégé: Debbie Friedman

Thursday, January 13, 2011 | by Rabbi Daniel Hillel Freelander
(Adapted from an article in Jweekly, San Francisco, CA)

The parashah Shabbat Shira was named for the "Song of the Sea." At the end of these verses, Miriam the Prophet lifted her timbrel and led the women in song and dance. For centuries these particular words were unsung. Then along came Debbie Friedman. Her music raised them to God and changed us forever.

On January 11, 1,000 American Jews gathered at a synagogue in Orange County, CA, and more than 7,000 via live stream video, to bid farewell to our beloved Debbie. Her timbrel was a guitar, and her voice led us out of a barren enslavement.

Debbie's leadership was something new. It wasn't hierarchical. She rejected performance in worship. She urged us to discover our spirit through singing together — and we would come to understand and own a spirituality that included one another.

She was the quintessential American Jewish folk singer, honoring the power of group singing through accessible but meaningful lyrics and melodies.

Nowhere was her vision more transformative than within the Reform Movement that raised and nurtured her. A child of NFTY, URJ Camps and song leader training programs, Debbie, in turn, led the musical revolution that shifted our worship from performance to participation. Though it took time for the musical establishment to appreciate her, the people rapidly elevated her to living legend status.

I first met Debbie in 1969 at the URJ Kutz Camp in Warwick, N.Y., singing and then imagining together what might be possible. We both were immersed in creating new melodies. But Debbie's music surpassed all; she was prolific.

At first she was all Jewish, all Hebrew, all the time. She was committed to Israel and the Hebrew language. Her music was didactic: remember purple Barney singing the alef-bet? Later, she experimented mixing Hebrew with creative translation or poetry to clarify the meaning of the text or prayer. Her lyrics were midrash, subtly and permanently transforming our understanding of an ancient text. All her songs were easy to learn and memorize.

With new albums every year or two and an extensive touring schedule, her music began to fill our lives. The songs became the norm for our youth, and as that youth grew into synagogue leadership, those beloved melodies became mainstream.

A woman of exceptionally high standards, she was also a gracious and generous musical friend. At every concert she invited cantors and rabbis to sing with her; harmonizing at her side was always my great joy.

Debbie reveled in the musical success of her colleagues and students. How grateful we are for her service to the Hava Nashira song leader training program; her ongoing presence at Adult Study Kallot, CAJE conferences and URJ conventions; and for her devotion over the past few years as a Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion faculty member in New York and Los Angeles. Debbie highlighted almost every major Jewish organizational conference for over 30 years.

But her greatest gift was how she helped us to sing our souls, confronting our fears, declaring our values, affirming our hopes. Consider these uplifting anthems:

  • "L'chi Lach" recast God's directive to Abraham as a universal prayer to forge into the unknown, and urged us to shape our lives as a blessing to others. The words explicitly highlighted women, and along with "Miriam's Song," marked the impact of feminism on our Jewish lives.
  • "Mi Shebeirach" revived the prayer for healing in hundreds of synagogues. Infusing an ancient formula with contemporary words and melody, she revitalized the power of a communal prayer for healing. "Healing" and "Debbie Friedman" became synonymous.
  • "Tefilat HaDerech" recaptured the traditional traveler's blessing, this time entirely in English and also communal. "May this be our blessing, amen."

How ironic that Debbie died the week of Parashat B'shalach, which contains the first Torah verses of a woman as explicit leader, musician and prophetess. Debbie was the inheritor of Miriam's timbrel. Like Miriam, Debbie Friedman's spirit is eternal.

Zichronah livrachah. May you be blessed as you go on your way. You have blessed ours.

Rabbi Daniel Hillel Freelander is the senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism. With Cantor Jeff Klepper, he composed many contemporary Jewish melodies, including "Shalom Rav" and "Lo Alecha." He and Debbie were friends for many years.

The Music Connected Me

By Idajean Fisher

The room is quiet, except for a bit of stifled conversation at the back of the sanctuary. The silence is broken as a single voice spreads out over the room like a blanket. Softly, slowly, the first few measures of Oseh Shalom waft out over the congregation. The congregants join in, slowly at first, steadily building. The sound swells, the pace quickens. Several teenage girls on the far side of the room begin to sing the round. By the third time through the melody most of the people in the room are singing joyfully and clapping in time. The music has helped them turn into a community. It is a warm embrace on a cold day, the sound of open hearts ready to be filled.

I have always sung. Some of my earliest memories are of singing alone while playing or of hearing my mother and siblings singing as they went through their days. Music permeated our home: we all played instruments, we all sang, sometimes softly under whatever task we were performing, sometimes with records, or with each other on car rides. Music has always been a source of comfort in my life.

The act of prayer is personal; each person must find his/her own way to express what s/he, as an individual, needs to express, to open up to the eternal. For me, music has always facilitated that communication. For many years I would go to synagogues and sit in silence, afraid to draw attention to myself. I would follow the prayers as best I could, but I did not read Hebrew and so it was hard to get past the words and the worry that I might say or sing them incorrectly. But the longing to be able to participate was great, so I would follow along slurring the words self consciously and struggling to let go enough for real prayer to happen.

It occurred to me that it was time to step forward to try to educate myself and hopefully learn how to pray in a more meaningful way. At first I studied on my own, but the task was simply too difficult, and prayer without community did not satisfy. Knowing that music had always been my conduit to prayer I joined a synagogue choir, even though I knew nothing about choral singing and had never sung in public. The music connected me to the liturgy in ways I could never have anticipated. The transformation was immediate and profound. It was not long before I was singing and chanting comfortably at services. I had finally found the form of expression I needed to facilitate prayer.

Emboldened by this initial success, I expanded my efforts to include a variety of forms of Jewish adult education. I studied Hebrew, learned to chant Torah, sang in several Jewish liturgical choirs, attended Jewish choral festivals and volunteered as a b'nei mitzvah tutor, passing on what I was learning. Finally, I was able to get past the words and open my heart through prayer.

Music Speaks Louder Than Words

By Cantor Alane Katzew, URJ Music and Worship Specialist

"Music speaks louder than words. It's the only thing that the whole world listens to. When you sing, people understand." These lyrics to the Peter, Paul and Mary song may iterate what we all know in our hearts: music is a great equalizer. Its styles vary and its interpretations may differ from place to place, but ultimately all who are endowed with the blessing of hearing can be drawn together by the power of music.

Music can function as a fantastic tool for outreach and keruv, drawing people into the synagogue and the Jewish and inter-religious global communities.

Read more at the blog to learn about four events demonstrating effective mechanisms for keruv.

The Soundtrack of Our Jewish Lives

By Steve Brodsky, Administrative Director, Sounds Write Productions

Studies have shown that the three experiences that have the greatest long-term impact on creating a solid Jewish identity in young people are Jewish camping, Jewish youth groups, and trips to Israel. It seems to me that one of the most powerful common threads that run through these programs is music.

Certainly music is at the heart and soul of camping and youth group experiences, and, for many of us, the Jewish songs we learned at camp or at a Kallah have formed the soundtrack of our Jewish lives. We were touched and moved by music in a powerful way at a time in our lives when we were most impressionable. Years later, we hear a song and the memories come flooding back—people and places and things that make us who we are today. At the 2009 Biennial in Toronto, it struck me more than ever before just how integral music is to everything we do as Reform Jews. In worship, in study, in workshops, in entertainment—the music was a constant, and was the thing that drew people together, brought them joy, touched them and moved and transformed them. What a rich tapestry of music we have woven!

Visit to begin or enhance your Jewish music library.

Schindler Fellows Program for Conversion Certification Registration is Now Open!

The Schindler Fellows Program for Conversion Certification, otherwise known as Conversion Fellows, will be held July 7-10 as part of the URJ Summer Learning Institute in Princeton, NJ. Now in its eleventh year, Conversion Fellows will prepare you to work in partnership with your rabbi as you counsel, support and welcome prospective Jews into your community. You'll train with HUC-JIR faculty members, congregational rabbis, and URJ specialists. This exceptional program will not be held again until 2013, so don't miss this opportunity to study, pray and learn skills and techniques that will help your congregation excel in providing a warm and supportive environment for those on the path to Judaism.

For more information, contact your Outreach Specialists or visit for details. Partial scholarships are available.

The 2011 Summer Learning Institute includes Adult Kallah, Had'rachah and the Schindler Fellows Program for Conversion Certification.

Announcing the URJ Incubator Grant Winners

Out of nearly 170 applicants, 20 Reform congregations in North America were selected to receive a URJ Incubator Grant of up to $5,000 from the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) to implement new programs to further engage current members and attract new members.

In honor of Jewish Disability Awareness Month, we wish to highlight Congregation Rodeph Sholom of New York, NY. Rodeph Sholom's Special Needs Worship Services are designed to provide families and children with special needs with the opportunity to worship together in an accessible, inclusive and sensitive environment. Created in conjunction with a consultant from Music for Autism, this congregation's experience will be a guide to inclusive worship.

Visit the URJ Incubator Grant Winners page to learn more about this and the other Grant recipients.

Belin Outreach & Membership Awards

The Belin Outreach Awards have been designed to encourage and honor Reform synagogues with outstanding Outreach and Membership programs that actively welcome and integrate those new to Judaism. Awards of $1,000 each will be made to ten congregations at the URJ North American Biennial in National Harbor, MD, December 14-18, 2011, and the Awards Committee will designate at least two of these awards for small congregations (under 250 member units). Award-winning programs will be included in The Outreach and Membership Idea Book, a program guide for congregations. A limited number of honorable mentions will also be named at the discretion of the Awards Committee and included in the Idea Book Volume IV.

Apply for the Belin Awards for Excellence in Congregational Programming in Outreach and Membership!

Deadline for submission is April 8, 2011.

Making the Most of Our Movement’s Magazine

We hope you are familiar with the award-winning Reform Judaism magazine, which offers great insight into issues important to our Movement. The Union for Reform Judaism is pleased to now offer member congregations up to 50 free bulk copies of Reform Judaism magazine for one year (this includes four issues, from spring 2011 through winter 2011). Visit Reform Judaism Magazine online by February 22 to learn more about and sign up for this great offer!

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