When I was 16 years old, my rabbi announced that he had hired a new youth group advisor for us. He had heard her sing at our regional URJ (then the UAHC) camp, Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute. To be honest, we had been kind of used to having the synagogue's assistant rabbi be our TYG advisor, and we weren't sure we were too happy about this.
Don't worry, the rabbi said, you'll like her. She's a terrific songleader.
What did we need a songleader for? We wondered. We had kids who played guitar and we were pros at singing all the anti-Vietnam music and the typical camp songs (Oh, did he ever return? No, he never returned...)
So, in came this young woman (she was barely 4 years older than we were), guitar in hand. Her enthusiasm was out of control. She was constantly laughing at everything, and would burst into song for absolutely no reason whatsoever.
Of course I'm talking about Debbie Friedman. When I tell my students today that she was once my youth group advisor, they're astonished. As if I sat at the table with royalty.
I guess I did.
It wasn't just that she made Friday night services something exciting (we remember well the time our cantor stormed out of the sanctuary when we were rehearsing Sing Unto God). It wasn't just that every kid in the Chicago area suddenly wanted to be in our youth group (duh...). It wasn't just that we essentially had celebrity in our midst. It was Debbie. Even without the guitar, she was funny, warm, exacerbating (I think we had to have a youth group intervention at one time), and incredibly accessible. She was a youth group advisor who hung with us, went out to eat after youth group meetings, shlepping us in her (I think) Cutlass which was then replaced by some little yellow car that I distinctly remember her calling the yellow turd. We lived and breathed youth group, and there's no question that she was a huge part of that. Even without the guitar.
Years later, as she went on to other things, she would always beam when we walked into the room, surprising her. I remember when she ran a mid-80?s invention, Elijah's Cup, a teen café run by the Chicago Jewish Federation, I think. Beginning her performance, she reflected on how weird it was to have former campers in the room. Still later, my then-husband and I surprised her when she was performing in Florida it was always the same, being greeted like we were long-lost relatives.
Still later, as my children were campers at OSRUI, they would see her and identify themselves, always to be hugged and greeted warmly. This year, my youngest daughter had the pleasure the blessing of spending time with Debbie at HUC, where she was on faculty and where my daughter is a student. Again, the greetings were warm, incredibly warm from a woman who had thousands of fans, all of whom thought they knew her.
And the music. I remember buying the Sing Unto God album and just playing it over and over and over. I remember working at OSRUI and going to Friday night services, exhausted from a long week, and singing long into the night, trying to keep up with the energetic Debbie. New lyrics, new harmonies, always some 5-part complicated arrangement. And you wondered where it all came from. She was an incredible talent, and all she wanted to do was share it with us; inspire us and get us to sing.
And she produced. The volume of work is impressive. Can you imagine religious school, camp, services without her music? It is difficult to imagine what the world will be like without her. And it's the shock of a sudden death that's hard. Harry Chapin, Jim Croce, John Lennon. The music suddenly stops.
But all that stops is one way of singing it. She has left a rich legacy, literally two generations of Jews who have been changed by her vision of what participatory liturgy can sound like. Jews who say that it was her who brought them back to the synagogue.
We'll sing in her memory, and she will never be forgotten.