Friday, February 4, 2011

And we'll sing our souls to You - in memory of Debbie Friedman

Wednesday marks the end of shloshim - the 30 day period of mourning after the funeral of Debbie Friedman.  Many congregations, federations and communities in the USA and abroad have been, and will be having musical gatherings to honor Debbie's memory.  Some of the larger programs were streamed live and  recorded for subsequent viewing.  You can listen to the Memorial service held at Central Synagogue, New York, here.  There was a concert memorial held at Temple Israel in Boston which you can view here.

Here, at Congregation B'nai Israel, we are gathering at the end of the first Shabbat after shloshim for a Havdalah song-session on February 12, 5-6:30 p.m.  Our focus will be on one thing and one thing only - singing Debbie's music together in a gathering that is open to everyone.  Helping to lead us will be several local musicians such as Cantor Scott Harris, Rabbi Suri Krieger, Rayhan Pasternak, Rhea Farbman, and Adrianne Greenbaum (in addition to B'nai Israel's own clergy and educators), and also some special guests from further afield: Kathy Gohr from Allentown, PA, Adrian Durlester from Amherst MA, Arnie Davidson from Glastonbury, CT and Batya Diamond from Wilton, CT.  This latter group are all people that I met at or with whom I share one very special place in common - Hava Nashira.  In fact, Rayhan, who is a Fairfield local, is also someone that I first met many years before I found myself in Connecticut, at Hava Nashira.  I'd like to say a little more about that in a moment.  But first, I hope you'll be able to join us to sing, learn and share Debbie's music on the 12th.  So that we can estimate numbers, it would be very helpful if you could RSVP via this link.

Hava Nashira is the program that first brought me to the USA.  It is the annual conference for song-leaders, held at OSRUI camp, Oconomowoc, WI and it is the URJ camp that serves the Great Lakes region.  I came because two years earlier Debbie had visited the UK, performed at the Liberal synagogue in St. John's Wood, London and run the choir a the UK national Limmud conference.  This was before Limmud became the 2,500-person mega conference that is today.  We were about 750-strong that year, and it was my first time attending the conference.  After Debbie left, a number of us based in London who had sung in her choir were bemoaning the fact that there was no-one like her for us to sing with when she left.  Both the style of the music and the passion and excitement that we felt in just singing our souls to God, experimenting with harmonies, feeling the surge of the voices coming together - we didn't know of a place in the UK to do that.  There were formal Jewish choirs that one could join and, wonderful though some of them were, it just wasn't the same.

For whatever reason - perhaps a sense of calling, or perhaps just pure chutzpah, I decided that there was no reason we couldn't continue to sing Debbie's music, and music like Debbie's in an informal musical gathering that had no 'outcome' in mind - no concerts, no performances.  Shir B'Yachad (sing together) was born, as a monthly musical gathering (A name suggested by Diane Bramson who still runs the monthly gathering now many years after I left the UK).  Initially I partnered with a friend, Nina Maraney, who was a talented Music graduate who played guitar and had a beautiful voice.  She was just beginning to focus on doing more professional music work for the Jewish community and, after almost a year, she encouraged me to take the helm musically as well as organizationally.  My musical skills were much more limited - some passable keyboard accompaniment and some rhythm, but I learned the songs quickly and gained confidence in teaching them to others.  Another friend and talented song-leader and composer, Jess Gold, encouraged me to join her the following year at Hava Nashira where I could gain some skills training and broaden my repertoire.

Debbie Friedman leading a session at Hava Nashira
Hava Nashira was a life-changing experience in so many ways.  On the first evening when we gathered for our first song-session, I felt like I'd entered some heavenly realm, surrounded by so many folk voices, effortlessly breaking into 6-part (at least) harmony as we sang together.  In addition to Debbie, the faculty included Jeff Klepper, Merri Arian, Ellen Dreskin, Rosalie Boxt, and  Donny Maseng.  There were many talented musicians and composers among the attendees too and it was quite awe-inspiring to be in the midst of it all.  I learned a lot of repertoire and picked up a lot of great advice on how to song-lead effectively in different settings.  Still very much the amateur, I returned to Hava Nashira whenever I could (although its been about 5 years since I was last able to make it).  Reconnecting with old friends became as much a part of the pleasure and, even with those I didn't see or hear from much in the interim, there was a powerful bond that transcended time and space that connected so many of us who had shared the Hava Nashira experience.  
When Debbie died, the remembrances and stories shared by all those who subscribe to the Hava Nashira listserv continued unabated for well over a week.  So many shared stories of things they had learned from Debbie, things that they had seen her do at Hava Nashira, the jokes she had told, the personal connections she had made with so many, inspiring them or supporting them at vital junctions in their lives.  It was deeply moving.

And so it is that, among the musicians helping to lead us in song next Saturday evening are some of those special connections from Hava Nashira.  Hava Nashira will go on, although Debbie's absence this year will be enormous.  The faculty in recent years has include Craig Taubman, Peter and Ellen Allard, Dan Nicols, Shira Kline and Josh Nelson - many very talented musicians, composers and song-leaders.  In addition, last year a Fall/Winter gathering was added called 'Shabbat Shirah', providing another opportunity to gather at OSRUI.  To learn more click here.
Sharing the joke (one of so many) with Debbie, Jeff, and Dan
Debbie, we will all miss you more than words can say.  Your memory is forever a blessing, and we will honor that memory by continuing to 'Sing Unto God'.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz


  1. Rachel, this is a beautiful story, told from your heart. I remember your first year at HN. I, also, have not been able to make it since 2007. Each first night I am again stunned by the beauty of the spontaneous harmonies and the density of the vocal sound we are able to create. It never gets old and it always surprises me. Debbie's first absence will be profoundly painful and--something else. I'm hoping it will be a prod, a goad, a push to many of us to find new ways to ply our craft. I loved hearing about Shir b'Yachad in the UK. It would be lovely to turn that into a movement of its own everywhere. Who knows? A widespread revival of communal singing just for its own sake as part of Debbie's legacy? That would be monumental!

    Thanks for your refelctions and for the opportunity to reflect.

  2. Rachel, I would have loved to be with you, your congregation and musical friends next shabbat to remember Debbie. I remember Debbie entertaining the Reform movement in Gt Britain at a wonderful concert in a big Marquee. Your Papa was with us and I have never seen him so moved and excited by a singer. I remember we all left that concert uplifted and so happy. Debbie just reached out to her audience.
    Shirley Gurevitz

  3. Rachel,
    Thanks so much for the most wonderful evening this past weekend to honor Debbie.... It was wonderfully emotional and such a tribute to a wonderfully talented woman.

    Everyone performed so well and the sound of all of us singing with all the talented singers and musicians filled the room.

    The highlight for me was seeing my 10 year old sitting with her friends singing and moving to the songs.... Debbie's sngs will live on for generations to come.

    Thanks again for creating a such a wonderful evening for all of us who were there.
    Val Bogner and family

  4. and now it is a sad farewell for the lovely Nina Maraney who died on Shabbat 28th July 2012.