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Debbie Friedman Helped Me Find My Voice

The concert is among my first experiences with live music, and my eyes are wide the whole time. As it ends, my mom hands me a single rose and encourages me to ascend the stage to give it to Debbie. This is a terrifying suggestion to me, but I go. I assume Debbie smiles at me, but I cannot remember. And it doesn’t matter, because this is my first encounter with fame. In our home, Debbie is a rockstar, an icon, as far as I know she is the author of the aleph-bet itself. 

As I eventually learn to play the guitar, I’m singing the “Youth Shall See Visions” on our Temple’s bimah. I am belting out “Sing Unto God” with my sister on the way to the mall and to camp.

The author and Debbie Friedman, smiling and hugging.

And then one day, I get to work next to her.  I’ve already learned from her once before at Hava Nashira, the annual songleading gathering at URJ Olin Sang Ruby, a camp in Wisconsin.  I am 19 and a timid songleader when Debbie approaches me. “Gubitz,” she says firmly, but with warmth, and with that smile that creeps across her face: “Gubitz, you really need to light a fire under your…” With her humor and insight, she further ignited my Jewish musical aspirations.

Now, we’re sitting side by side, staring up at the powerpoint screen, the newest innovation in summer camp songleading. I’m Co-Head Songleader at URJ Kutz Camp with my friend Chana Rothman. As summer often is, this summer of 2005 is a threshold, a resting place between college and the real world, on the cusp of personal change. After many years songleading at my own summer home—URJ Goldman Union Camp, a place where music is our soul—my final summer ended in a depression. The semester before, I am studying abroad in Prague and my boyfriend stops answering my calls. I face an anxiety and sadness I have never known before. This grief invades my body; I cannot stand up in the dining hall to lead a song session, I cannot sing at services either. Each time I open my mouth, I can barely breathe. 

This summer is for healing. It’s a hot summer evening in Warwick, yet Debbie wears jeans and a long sleeved shirt, sweating maybe, but looking calm and cooled by, I can only imagine, the youthful voices around us. A throat lozenge is, naturally, protruding slightly from her cheek.  You can’t see it, but the Perrier is there, too, somewhere within reach. 

Photos capture the moment. My hands are pressed tightly against the frets of my guitar. Hugging her guitar, in one hand she holds a pick as the other hand rests calmly on her leg.  In all other photos that follow, I play and she sits next to me. “Want to start the next song, Debbie?” I ask her.

“No, no.  It’s okay.  You start.  I’ll play back up,” she says warmly. 

I don’t think she plays much that evening.  Most of the time, she sits next to me, singing quietly, sensitively, supportively.

Do I ever tell her that her music is the soundtrack of my Jewish experience? Singing Unto God on repeat, at the top of our lungs; Lechi Lach accompanying us on so many journeys; feeling safe with the sense of angels by our side; ensured that Hey always came after Dalet and Gimel; relieved and glad not to be a turkey on Thanksgiving day; and comforted with a sense of renewing my body and spirit in the most difficult of times.

That summer, we sit side by side, in that sweltering heat, Debbie and me, and all that I never told her, I sense that she knew.

And then one day, I mourn her.

*

I am studying to be a rabbi and I am sitting in the chapel at school with my friends, among us future rabbis, cantors, educators, our teachers, too. As we hear about her life, I am remembering each time she led Mi Shebeirach, our prayer for healing, in concerts or gatherings. People would begin to sing and she would lovingly stop us. “Let me sing it for you first,” she would say, “let me sing it for you first.” And I am hoping she knew we were all singing for the healing of her soul in her final days of living.  I am crying as I realize the fullness of Debbie’s lifetime of which I was privileged to share but a few precious moments. 

 *

I am a rabbi now; bringing people together to sing is my greatest joy. It is ten years since she has died. I have led daily minyan for the first three months of the pandemic and we are singing Debbie’s melody for Mi Shebeirach over and over and over again. As suffering abounds, it brings deep comfort, feeling the melody wash over my body, noticing the power of her words, as if I’ve never heard them before. May the source of strength who blessed the ones before us help us find the courage. I feel the courage, stronger than ever before. Even as my heart breaks for our world, my heart is no longer broken. My “mourning has turned to dancing” and I have found my voice.