CALIFORNIA – Jewish folk singer and songwriter Debbie Friedman died Sunday, Jan. 9 in Southern California, a week after she came down with pneumonia. She was in her late 50s.
Friedman, who helped reinvigorate synagogue music with her folky, contemporary Jewish sacred music, released more than 20 albums and performed in sold-out concerts around the world at synagogues, churches, schools and other notable venues, including Carnegie Hall. She was best known for her composition “Mi Shebeirach,” a prayer for healing that is sung in many North American Reform and Conservative congregations. In 2007 she was appointed to the faculty of the Reform movement’s cantorial school.
Last spring, Friedman presided over the Women’s Ma’ayan Seder in Windsor, hosted by the Mandell JCC and attended by more than 800 women from Connecticut and Massachusetts. She was a long-time friend of the JCC’s executive director, David Jacobs.
“Debbie and I met when we were teens, and she was song-leading at the NFTY national camp in Warwick, N.Y.,” Jacobs told the Ledger. “Even then we all knew that she was someone who would have a deep impact on our lives. When she began to compose – I remember her singing ‘Thou S
halt Love’ in my living room – it was all too clear that she was destined for greatness.”
Formerly based in New York City, Friedman, recently moved to California to be closer to family.
Responding to news of her death, URJ President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie said, “Debbie Friedman was an extraordinary treasure of our movement, and one of its most influential voices. Twenty-five years ago, North American Jews had forgotten how to sing. Debbie reminded us how to sing, she taught us how to sing. She gave us the vehicles that enabled us to sing.”
“By creating a whole new genre of Jewish music, Debbie was able to reintroduce authentic Jewish spirituality,” said Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism and a long-time friend and fellow songwriter. “She wrote melodies that spoke to us, spoke to our intellect, spoke to our emotions.”
In 2007, the Union for Reform Judaism honored Friedman with the first Alexander M. Schindler Award for Distinguished Leadership presented at an emotional tribute concert in at the URJ Biennial in San Diego.
“Her impact on modern Jewish life is unprecedented,” said Jacobs. “Her music has already become the ‘traditional’ music of many services. ‘art is forever’ and so is Debbie Friedman.”
To learn more about Debbie Friedman and her music, see our featured video in the sidebar, and visit www.debbiefriedman.com
A reflection on the life of Debbie Friedman by Rabbi Ilana Garber of Beth El Temple in West Hartford appears here.