When Debbie Friedman Helped Me Find My Voice
One day, I get to work next to Debbie Friedman at last.
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. It was 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.
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.
RABBI JEN GUBITZ, “Debbie Friedman Helped Me Find My Voice,” on the Lilith Blog, January 2021.