An Uncommon Debbie Story
The first I ever heard of Debbie Friedman was to see her name printed on the inside covers of my synagogue’s prayer books, naming her the author of the modern Mi Shebeirach tune. Growing up, that was all I ever knew of her – just a name above the words on a page.
I grew up attending a Reform congregation, but I did not grow up “in the Movement,” per se. My mother and I were members of a small congregation in Northeast Ohio where there was no organized youth group, no NFTY or BBYO. There were just six students in my bat mitzvah class, and though we considered ourselves friends, we all attended different schools, which made friendships difficult outside of synagogue-related activities – and at my suburban public school, I was one of just two Jewish students. Needless to say, though I always identified as Jewish, I did not grow up with a background that focused on or even acknowledged the possibility of a larger community.
In 2007, through a series of fortunate events, I found myself serving as a legislative assistant at the Religious Action Center. From the start, it was both a thrilling and terrifying experience. By far the least Jewishly knowledgeable of my fellow legislative assistants, I often stepped back and asked myself, How on earth did I get here? Is this where I belong? Never did these questions ring more loudly in my head than at the 2007 Biennial, which took place just a few months into my year as a RAC LA. Until that point, I hadn’t known such an event existed, and I certainly had no idea there was a larger Reform Movement, and active community populated by clergy, lay leaders, musicians, academics, youth, and other enthusiastic, dedicated Reform Jews who all seemed to know one another. I couldn’t play Jewish geography because, aside from my new RAC coworkers, the only other Jews I knew were the kids I grew up with – none of whom identified as Jewish in adulthood. I spent much of my time at the Biennial feeling like an outsider, unsure of my place.
It was at the Biennial that I heard the name Debbie Friedman for the second time. A highlight of the 2007 convention was a musical presentation honoring Debbie’s contributions to Jewish music – not just Mi Shebeirach (the only tune of hers I knew), but dozens upon dozens of songs that all the other Biennial attendees seemed to know the words to. I watched with amazement and confusion as a room full of thousands of Reform Jews sang along to songs I’d never heard, honoring a woman who, until that point, I knew only as a name in a book. While other celebrated and danced, I found myself in tears, further doubting my place both at the Biennial and in the larger Jewish community. At that moment, I seriously questioned whether I was “Reform enough” for the Movement. How on earth did I get here? Is this where I belong?
Fast-forward to January 2010, when I’d had more than two years to consider those questions and seek the answers. After three wonderful, fulfilling years at the Religious Action Center, I had just begun a new job as a congregational representative for the URJ’s East District, and less than two weeks into my new position, I was scheduled to leave for a 10-day vacation of sorts: my Birthright trip. I felt confident that I was at a place in life when a trip to Israel would make, rather than break, my Jewish experience, solidifying what I already knew – that the Reform Movement is, in fact, where I belong. But just days after my new job began and before I left for Israel, tragedy struck: Debbie Friedman passed away, succumbing to her long illness. I watched her funeral online, feeling those uncomfortable reminders of the 2007 Biennial, when I sat in silence as thousands around me sang along to songs I’d never heard. As I prepared to head to Israel for the first time, I found myself on uneven footing once again.
While in Israel, though, it struck me how strange the timing of Debbie’s death was in parallel to my own life. At the 2007 Biennial, Debbie was ill but still a vibrant pillar of the Reform Movement; at that time, I was unsure and afraid, doubting my own place within the Reform community. Just three years later, at the time of Debbie’s death, I was about to take the step that would ultimately bind me to the Reform Movement and solidify my commitment to my own Judaism. Though I’d never felt particularly close to Debbie Friedman or her music – to me, she’d always represented that period in my life when I doubted my place in the Movement – it was only in her passing that I realized how much she signified to me, a symbol of the timeline of my own Jewish growth.
Last month marked the one-year anniversary of Debbie Friedman’s death, and in less than a week, I leave for Israel again – this time, as the leader of a Birthright trip. I eagerly await the opportunity to introduce other young Reform Jews to the Holy Land, where I will do my best to ensure that their first experience in Israel is as positive, meaningful, and fulfilling as mine was just a year ago. I will do everything in my power to help them to feel that there is a place for them in the Reform Movement, no matter their background or level of Jewish knowledge. In preparation for my trip, I’ve made a few playlists of Jewish and Israeli music to play on the long bus rides through Israel – and you can bet that there are a few of Debbie’s tunes on there, reminding me just how far I have come.