A Force to be Reckoned With

by Cantor Ellen Dreskin

I remember the first time I met Debbie Friedman. In the fall of 1974, I was a college freshman. Rabbi Sam Karff from Congregation Beth Israel in Houston (my home) let me know that Debbie would be spending a Shabbat at Beth Israel, presenting her new Hanukkah service, “Not by Might, Not by Power,” complete with youth choir, dancers, and guitar. He wanted to know if I would come home from Austin and play the flute…

Debbie and I spent the entire weekend together, beginning our friendship of 35 years. We sang together at early CAJE (Coalition for Alternatives in Jewish Education) conferences, where I experienced my first all-night kumsitz (song session). Debbie sang at my wedding, and I was honored to be on stage with her at Carnegie Hall – not once, but twice. In 1998, she was responsible for bringing me onto the faculty of Hava Nashira, and I was delighted to teach with her and learn from her every time we were together.

I believe that Debbie’s unique influence on NFTY and camp had as much to do with function as with form. Debbie, whose music was deeply influenced by the Weavers, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, as well as by the religious leanings of Shlomo Carlebach, was among the first to insist (and she did insist) that worship is of no use without worshipers’ very personal connection to the act of prayer. She wanted to know what camp songleaders thought they were doing up there at the front of the room, particularly as it related to worship and creating community. It was not only her compositions, but also her command of the room or the friendship circle or the bimah that drew people in. Both her music and her presence served as a model for all who came after her. To Debbie, singing itself was a means to an end. Community, inclusion, relevance, spirit – these were her goals, and the very same ones that have always been consistent with the vision of NFTY the URJ’s summer camps.

In addition to being a terrific friend, Debbie was a tough mentor along the way. Fluent in Hebrew, she frequently engaged young composers in conversation, making sure they had thought long and hard about the words they were setting to music. She had little tolerance for young songleaders whose egos were evident when they were in front of a group. I think that young people flocked to her because of her rebellious spirit and her strength of character. Even if one was occasionally bruised by her frank evaluation or her honest critique, one could never argue with her ability to make a person reflect on, and refine, compositions and skills. Although Debbie did not need you to live up to her expectations, she did want you to live up to the expectations of the liturgy – and the task at hand. I believe that teenagers and campers were attracted to her high level of integrity, and sought to model it in their own teaching and performances.

Debbie’s strength of character, her genuine concern for the well-being of each individual, and her faith in the ability of Jewish liturgy and ritual to change the world, all made her a force to be reckoned with. Her influence was so much more than her compositions. Her very being changed the face of Judaism forever. To have known her, and to have worked, studied, and prayed together with her always will be a blessing to me and to so many others.

Cantor Ellen Dreskin is the coordinator of the Cantorial Certification Program at the HUC-JIR Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music in New York.

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