Friday, January 27, 2012

Remembering Debbie Friedman on the 1st Yarzheit

This post was previously published at and is reprinted here on the eve of the 1st yarzheit for Debbie Friedman

On January 9, 2011, a sweet singer of Israel, Debbie Friedman, passed away. While her Hebrew yahrzeit is at the end of this month, for many this is becoming a month of remembrance. Family gatherings, concerts in her memory, special Shabbat Shira dedications in early February, as her legacy and her songs live on.

On Monday night, I ended my eighth grade class with a brief sharing of some of my own personal interactions with Debbie, and the enormous role she had in pointing the way to the path that became my life as a rabbi. When I teach Torah about m’lachim – angels in Jewish tradition, I often point out how, when they show up in our holy text, they bring a message that redirects the life path of the one being visited. Think Hagar (twice), Jacob wrestling with an angel, Joseph meeting a ‘man’ in a field who redirects him to find his brothers (without which the rest of the Joseph story that we have recently read in this year’s Torah cycle might never have unfolded). When I teach these texts, I ask people to think of the encounters in their own lives that might fall into this domain. Debbie was most certainly ones of those people for me. One of the last songs she wrote was a new setting for Shalom Aleichem – the poem we sing on Erev Shabbat to welcome the Sabbath angels into our homes and our lives … how fitting.

Many have written far more eloquently than I about the legacy of Debbie’s music; how she transformed the way we sang our souls to God, and the sound of prayer in our sanctuaries; and how her blending of English and Hebrew enabled us to understand and connect with the prayers in a deeper way. For me, and for many who had personal encounters with Debbie, whether they were intimate friends, or once-only events, the legacy that we remember goes beyond the gift of the music. In the outpouring of remembrances that were shared online in the days and weeks that followed her passing, what so many shared was the way that Debbie was deeply and truly present to others. She had a gift for seeing within another person and, in that moment, asking the most important question. She was a Spiritual Director of sorts, although she would never have claimed that label.

During this month of January as I remember, sing Debbie’s songs, look through old photographs, and connect with others, I know that all who do likewise, in the USA and beyond, are truly making her memory be for a blessing. ‘And you shall be a blessing’, she sang to us. Now we sing it for her.

At the end of my eighth grade class, I played the original recording of Debbie as a teenager singing the Shema. I told them how young she had been when she began to write these melodies, how she song-lead at camp, how she went on to touch so many thousands of lives. I pray that, while they will never have the blessing of meeting Debbie Friedman, they may still be touched by her gifts and inspired by her life.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

NFTY - Our teens inspire and teach us

Last week I went up to the URJ Eisner Camp for a day during the December Institute of NFTY-NE - the regional winter gathering of our movement's youth group.  There were over 150 teens there and, in the short number of hours I spent there, I learned and I was inspired.

I arrived in time to lead a fun and noisy session - a drum circle.  As I told the teens, I profess no great expertise in teaching anyone else to drum.  I do have good rhythm and average drumming skills, but we happen to own a particularly large drum collection, making it possible for me to offer this to about 15 people.  Of course, a group drumming session like this offers a fun and informal way to explore not only rhythmic abilities but also skills of leadership and followship.  What was wonderful for me to see was that, while I came armed with a few ideas to make one round of drumming a little different from the next, leaders in the group naturally emerged ... getting us up and marching around the room (and eventually around the building), leading a call and response round, and suggesting chants to add to the few that I'd brought to give us something to drum along to.

Next, I observed a teen-written and teen-run program about labels and terms used so often in derogatory ways and the real mental or physical health issues that they relate to.  It was a tough program to maintain momentum with, but I was so impressed by the seriousness and dedication of the teen leaders who led the discussion groups, and the incredibly supportive participation of the teens.  Every synagogue board and committee could learn from watching these kids in action!

The highlight of the visit for me was watching Michael Kalmans, the Co-President of our Temple Youth Group, BIFTY, lead the evening prayer service that he had written.  In its creativity, spirituality, social conscience and beauty it was inspiring.  In so many ways it was 'outside the box' and, simultaneously, one of the most spiritual services I've been to in a very long time.

In the busy lives that our teens live, and the heavy workload of school, it is harder these days for Temple youth groups to find a place in the schedules and priorities of our kids' lives.  Yet the power and importance of NFTY goes far beyond the social hang-out space that these groups provide.  The values of the organization, and the empowerment and life skill set that NFTY provides for our teens is priceless.  How much so?  Please watch this powerful video made by a NFTY teen who was another regional gathering over the same week. There is just one word... Inspiring!