The death of folk singer and liturgist Debbie Friedman over the weekend has sent shock waves through local synagogues, where rabbis, cantors, and lay people remembered a musician who transformed the modern synagogue liturgy. Her folksy settings of common prayers are so deeply enmeshed in many services that people who have never heard of her may nonetheless hum her familiar melodies.
“Debbie Friedman changed the ‘voice’ of Reform Jewish music and inspired multiple generations of cantors and song leaders worldwide,” said Cantor Anna Berman of Temple Har Shalom, the Reform synagogue in Warren. “I have no doubt that the legacy she leaves behind will continue to inspire young song leaders and composers for many years into the future.
“Zihrona livracha — may her memory always be for a blessing. She will be greatly missed.”
Friedman’s passing “is really a loss for the entire Jewish community,” said Cantor Matthew Axelrod of Congregation Beth Israel, the Conservative synagogue in Scotch Plains. “Each week in our Friday night service, we sing her ‘Oseh Shalom,’ and our adult and junior choirs have sung some other songs of hers. She was a pioneer in that she helped make Jewish music more accessible to worshipers and Jewish audiences. She paved the way for many composers and song writers who came after her and whose music is now increasingly present in many synagogues.”
Cantor Martha Novick of Temple Emanu-El, the Reform congregation in Westfield, remembers meeting Friedman and telling her how the synagogue incorporated her music.
“I once told Debbie how much our congregation loved singing her ‘Ahavat Olam’ each Friday night and how I thought it captured the text so beautifully. With that, she started to weep; that was Debbie Friedman,” said Novick. “Words can never describe what a loss this is for me and for all who truly loved her.”
Added Novick: “Debbie may have been a blessing to the world of synagogue music, but to those of us who knew her, she blessed all of us with her gift of a beautiful soul.”
Friedman was scheduled to teach a “Music as Midrash” seminar this week at Hebrew Union College in New York, before the singer fell ill with the pneumonia that would take her life Jan. 9 at age 59.
Friedman’s death “is a very painful loss,” said Cantor Steven Stern of the Conservative Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah. “Her music brought a unique spirit to synagogue worship, and she especially touched the lives of so many by bringing comfort to those facing illness and difficult life challenges.
“We were in the midst of finalizing arrangements for her to come to Clark to lead a community-wide healing service when the sad news came,” said Stern. “Both her talent and her authenticity always impressed me, and she will be greatly missed. Yehi zihra baruch” — May her memory be blessed.
Vicky Glikin, the student cantor at Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains/Fanwood, and a fourth-year student at the School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, studied with Friedman, who served as an instructor at the school beginning in 2007.
Glikin was in Los Angeles this week and planned to attend Friedman’s funeral on Tuesday.
“She was encouraging and always inspired my classmates and me to write our own music and to share our gifts with our congregants,” said Glikin. “I will never forget sitting at her house and playing a melody that I had written for her class, working it out with her and putting the finishing touches on it.
“Debbie was incredibly supportive of each of her students and we will miss her terribly.”