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September 16, 2014 | 21st Elul 5774

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Rodeph Shalom, Philadelphia, PA

Sweet Singer of Israel
Deborah Lynn Friedman
1951-2011

The Tanach calls David, the pre-eminent poet of his time, "the sweet singer of Israel." The sweet singer of Israel of our time, Debbie Friedman, has died.

Debbie began composing in her teens, setting prayers to music, giving wings to ancient words and empowering every one who wished to join her reaching towards God, and towards one another. For nearly half a century, Debbie's music, always grounded in Jewish texts and contexts, opened new pathways of prayer, celebration, and being in the world. Her first album, "Sing Unto God," set the theme for her life's work. She helped us see that singing to God might begin in the synagogue, but that our songs truly soar wherever--and whenever--we gather together. And when we sing together, we remind ourselves and one another that God is with us, even when we are faced with and distracted by our own pain, anger, or our sense of distance from ourselves, from one another, and from God.

Debbie was an engaging and often electric performer. For many who attended her numerous performances over the years, in synagogues, Jewish community centers, at Carnegie Hall, or in open spaces at summer camps and Jewish retreats across America and Canada, Debbie's clear voice embraced us as the words of both tradition and innovation entered our hearts and our souls. With songs including, "Lechi Lach," "Miriam's Song," and "Deborah the Prophet," she crafted musical midrash, inviting us to discover anew the characters and the stories of the Tanach. She welcomed us into expanded appreciation and celebration of Shabbat and the holidays of the Jewish year, giving us a powerful Chanukah anthem, "Not by Might, Not by Power," and an extraordinary Passover cycle that includes "Light these Lights" and "The Journey Song." She transformed the liturgy, illuminating and reclaiming prayers we had overlooked or neglected; her MiSheberach rekindled a tradition of communal prayer for healing and encouraged other composers to follow her lead, creating musical settings of words that offer strength and encouragement to all struggling with illness, and all who care for them.

As I reflect on thirty plus years of friendship and our work together, crafting new ritual opportunities through the Los Angeles Jewish Feminist Center and Ma'yan, and bringing together members of the Reform movement, I realize that I am one of many, many souls who were blessed to call Debbie "friend." Wherever she went, she made deep connections, for she, perhaps like King David, looked beyond the masks we wear, and saw directly into people's hearts. Many of her songs were written in response to the journeys, and questions, of an individual, or a community, she encountered along the way.

Debbie Friedman's legacy includes many blessings: her deep belief in the transformative power of music and prayer, her understanding that communities can be the locus for true healing, her gift for humor that lightens even the heaviest load. We are in her debt whenever we see God "all around us," when we link arms to bless our teachers and students with "Kaddish deRabban," when we sing out Shabbat on the waves of her Havdalah, when we take leave of one another with "Tfilat HaDerech." Sweet Singer of Israel, you have been our blessing.


Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, PhD.
Slelwell@urj.org

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