To the many thousands of words of tribute that have been written about Debbie Friedman this week as the Jewish world mourns her untimely death, I humbly add these few…
The process of my transition from the Orthodox Jewish world of my youth and education to a proud and very publicly identified Conservative rabbi has been a long and sometimes painful one. When I was growing up in the sheltered cocoon of my little shteibel in Bayonne, New Jersey, I barely knew where the Conservative and Reform synagogues were, much less did I ever go to them. Those Jews and their practices were strange to me. I stayed very much within my comfort zone.
As I grew and matured, my horizons began to expand. Camp Ramah was a major change agent, broadening my sphere of friends and introducing me for the first time to Conservative Jews who were – mirabile dictu– very much like me. My years in the Zamir Chorale continued that broadening experience, as did meeting Robin, the woman who would, eventually, become my wife. No shteibel product was she, and more than anyone or anything else, Robin encouraged me to appreciate the wide diversity of the spectrum of Jews “out there.” She was one of them. And thirty-five years later, I am still appreciating that diversity, with her at my side.
One thing I was never particularly comfortable with at the beginning of my exposure to the non-Orthodox world was the differences in the ways we prayed. My experience growing up was what my wife referred to- still does- as the “buzz buzz” approach to prayer. You start off, go as quickly as you can, making a kind of buzzing sound as you go along, and you finish when you get to the end. There was some singing along the way- at least on Shabbat and holidays- but speed was an essential component, and actually reciting the prayers regularly was considered much more important than the intent and focus with which you recited them.
As I met increasing numbers of Jews in the non-Orthodox world, I noticed that their prayer habits were substantially different. They tended to go more slowly- it used to drive me crazy!- and they sang a whole lot more. And then I heard what was, for me, something I could never imagine myself getting used to… singing a prayer aloud, in English, as part of a daily prayer service. “So Waspy,” I remember thinking to myself. “That’s what Protestants do in church- they sing hymns aloud together in English. I could never do that.”
One day, someone played me Debbie Friedman’s Mishebeirach– the prayer for those who are ill. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before, mixing Hebrew and English, playing with the wording in some places to make the prayer more gender sensitive, and using a melody that was positively haunting but decidedly not Eastern European. I fell in love with the piece, and immediately asked a friend in the business what he thought Debbie’s best album was. He recommended “And You Shall Be a Blessing.” I promptly bought it, and my wife and I began playing it in the car when we traveled with our children on summer vacation days. That led to more albums purchased, and more hours listening.
Long story short- I became a Debbie Friedman devotee, as did my family. Concerts, tapes (pre-CD’S!)… the whole nine yards.
And then, I made what was for me the greatest symbolic leap forward in my ongoing religious and spiritual development. I remember asking myself why it was that we couldn’t sing Debbie’s Mishebeirach in my very traditional Conservative synagogue here in Queens. I could certainly sing it, though as often as not, it moves me so that it chokes me up. And I could teach my congregation to sing it, too.
And so it was that one Shabbat, with more than a little trepidation, I changed the way we did our prayer for those in the congregation and community who were ill. It was more than a little strange singing in English the first few times, but I quickly came to appreciate how much more quiet and reflective the congregation was when we sang Debbie’s version, and what a prayerful moment it had become… so different from the “buzz buzz,” quickly recited version of the prayer that I was used to from my days growing up.
In the years to come, I reached out to Debbie for comfort myself during a particularly painful moment of loss and bereavement in my rabbinate – and she was there for me. We spoke a few times thereafter, and I always thought of her as a friend, and revered colleague.
The news of Debbie’s death was extraordinarily sad for me, and for my family. She was a presence in our lives in a unique way, and as much as anyone else, she helped make me the person, and rabbi, that I am. We mourn with entire household of Israel.
T’he nishmatah tzrurah b’tzror hahayyim; may her soul be bound up in the bond of everlasting life…
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation.