Saturday, January 15, 2011

Debbie Friedman, Inspiration, Teacher, and Friend

These words were delivered at Congregation B'nai Israel on Friday, January 14th, Shabbat Shirah, before the recitation of the Kaddish

These words, close to the start of the ‘Live at the Del’ album, were my first introduction to Debbie Friedman.  It was around 1992 and I’d been attending a workshop in London about contemporary Jewish female composers who were doing remarkable things.  In the UK Reform headquarters bookstore, this cassette was all they had.  My mother and I put the tape on to drive back home and were singing along within seconds, even though we’d never heard these songs before.  Because that’s what Debbie wanted you to do – sing!  And she knew how to get everyone joining in.  When Debbie came to the UK two years later, to lead a choir and several workshops at the Limmud Conference, she did something transformative.  As Educator, Robbie Gringras notes, she ‘created an astonishing ad hoc choir of Brits who sang to the heavens with a freedom and joy that I’d never heard in the UK’

Debbie transformed lives.  I have lost count of the number of postings that I have read in the last few days where, whether someone had sung with her, met her for a moment, worked with her professionally, or knew her as a friend, they felt that she had inspired them to follow their dreams, and fully realize their potential.  I was one of so many.  When Debbie left the UK after that Limmud Conference, I established a monthly music gathering – Shir B’Yachad (sing together), with no purpose other than to sing our souls to God, but that path eventually led me to the Rabbinate, and to the USA.

Speaking about the message of her song, L’chi Lach, Debbie explained that, in the parsha Lech Lecha there are the words ‘veh'yei bracha’ – and you shall be a blessing.  ‘Its not a suggestion’, she said.  ‘It’s in the command form;  Lech l’cha – go within and find that spark, that essence, and let it shine forth in the world – be a blessing.  And that is exactly what she did.

I got to know Debbie as a dear friend over time and by the time I moved to New York in 2003 I felt like I had a big sister, confidant, and special friend in Debbie.  One of the reasons that Debbie moved so many people was because she always spoke from the heart.  She was the most real and honest person.  She could see inside your soul and, when you were not being honest with yourself, she’d help you find yourself again.  She was a private person but, when you had her trust, she would share her world with you and give you the privilege of giving her a little something back.

Debbie was also extremely funny.  She loved slapstick, could tell a joke like few others, and would have audiences in stitches with laughter just as often as she would have them in tears from the emotional outpouring that her songs and prayers gave rise to.  Even in the midst of a healing service there would be laughter and, of course, that was sometimes the most healing of all.

Debbie’s life and legacy were remarkable.  She became ill in the prime of her career, after a reaction to some migraine medication.  It left her with the neurological illness that she had for the rest of her life, and which showed considerable signs of worsening in recent years.  Yet Debbie inspired us all by giving everything that she had.  She did not grumble or complain – her burden became her inspiration, and her Mi Shebeirach blessing for healing, in addition to so much more liturgy set to inclusive, communal music, transformed how we pray, and how we feel when we pray.

Last Saturday morning, for parshat Bo, I had talked about freedom requiring us to confront our inner Pharaohs.  I know from the conversations that I have had with close friends of Debbie’s in recent days that Debbie did exactly that in the last couple of months of her life and, despite her physical deterioration and pain, lived more fully than she had for so long, doing everything she loved with everyone she loved just one more time to the max – no holding back.  She jammed until 4am on the last two nights of Limmud.  When she got back she had a day out with her family doing some of the things that they loved to do together.  This was the day before she was admitted into the hospital. She called and emailed many friends in recent weeks and months and gave each of us one last special gift.  She freed herself from her slavery, even though it meant that as she crossed the parting sea, she left us behind.  She is now dancing on the other shore with Miriam and all the people. 

And the women dancing with their timbrels, followed Debbie as she sang her song.  Sing a song for the one who came before us, Debbie and the people sang and sang the whole night long.’
Debbie Friedman z'l with beloved dog Farfel (now deceased; Gribenez was Debbie's beloved dog at the time of her death)
Debbie established 'The Renewal of Spirit Foundation' a number of years ago.  A donation to this fund will enable projects that she was working on at the time of her death to be completed.  For more information, go to
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz
Each song mentioned above is linked to an album where you can find that track on  Debbie's albums are also available on several other sites, e.g. itunes, 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Monday, January 10, 2011

Mourning for Debbie Friedman

Dear friends and congregants,
I am truly at a loss to share words at this time.  Debbie Friedman touched the hearts and souls of thousands with her music and her presence.  She was among my dearest friends for these past 12 years and I am deeply mourning her loss.  I have no words.
I simply wish to share, for those who have not received the information through other channels, that the gathering for Debbie last night at the JCC Manhattan, which was streamed live, was also recorded and can be viewed here.

In addition, the funeral will be broadcast over the web.  It is taking place on the West Coast tomorrow morning, at what will be 2pm EST.  If you wish to attend the funeral in this way, the link is here.

Her memory is forever a blessing.  May she be blessed as she goes on her way...
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Scottish Shabbes Bride visits on Shabbat Hogmanay

On Kabbalat Shabbat, New Year's Eve, I shared some of my Scottish heritage with the congregation.  Yearning for some of the traditions that I grew up with (primarily enjoying a dram of whiskey, eating shortbread, and watching the Hogmanay celebrations on BBC Scotland), we welcomed in the Scottish Shabbes Bride to the strains of Scotland the Brave, and closed out the service with Adon Olam sung to Auld Lang Syne.  Adorned with a Scottish bunnet and a tartan tallit, my intention was primarily to bring some of the joy and celebratory mood of the night and to weave it into our Shabbes prayers.

Hogmanay is the name given to New Year's Eve in Scotland.  No-one is quite sure of the origin of the name or its meaning - Wikipedia and other sources will share several theories about multiple linguistic roots.  Not to be found among them, but quite tempting as a valid possibility, is the Hebrew 'Chag haMonnaie' - the Festival of Counting.  Our Scottish Shabbes Bride was our 'First Footer' of the evening.  While usually referring to the first person to cross the threshold of a neighbor after midnight, bearing whiskey, shortbread, a lump of coal and some salt, ours was the first to cross our threshold after we lit Shabbes candles.  She entered in style and serenaded us, quite literally.

For a number of years, one of the highlights of the televised Hogmanay specials in Scotland was a short segment toward the end of the evening featuring a special message from a Presbyterian minister of some repute - the Rev. I.M. Jolly.  While I could scarcely do justice to the joyful message that Rev. Jolly would share each year, I did my best to replicate his style and content.  But for many congregants who wanted more, I present to you here, below, the original Rev. I.M. Jolly.
Wishing you all blessings, good health, and much happiness and joy in 2011.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz