muse: n. a source of inspiration

Lessons from Debbie

There’s so much in the blogosphere right now about Jewish education – how to change it, how to improve it, how to invigorate it, how to re-vision it…

Of course this is not what I’ve been thinking about this week. I’ve been thinking about our dear Debbie Friedman z”l. Having known her for almost 40 years, I thought a lot about what it was like to be part of the “early Debbie” years, before all the records (and they were records), before Carnegie Hall, before the music was widely accepted. Back in the day when she couldn’t get into Hebrew Union College, let alone teach there.

She, too, changed, improved, invigorated and re-visioned. Synagogue music will never ever be the same.

Can we do for Jewish education what she and those who followed her did for Jewish music? Are there lessons we can learn from Debbie? I think so.

Here are a few I can come up with. Any more you can think of?

1. Make it relevant. Her music spoke to us because it sounded like what we were already listening to and loving. Is Jewish education relevant to our students? Does it speak their language? Use the tools they’re used to using? My synagogue bought a set of used Apple iBooks and I brought them out for my kids to use the other day. They beamed. These are old, old laptops, but the kids were as excited as if they were brand new. Is there anything I’m going to do with those laptops that I couldn’t do some other way? Maybe not, but it’s where the kids are NOW.

2. Make it engaging. We, of course, wanted to be there. The melodies were intoxicating. Debbie, undoubtedly, was intoxicating as well. She had a vibrant, exciting, huge personality. We joked about Debbie groupies. How engaging is Jewish education today? We can’t all be Debbie Friedmans, but are we attracting exciting, huge personalities and are we giving them the space to be who they are?

3. Take some risks. I remember vividly the day that our cantor stormed out of the sanctuary because he and Sing Unto God just weren’t going to get along. Who won? But it was a huge risk. Singing those melodies in the sanctuary – pushing the organ out of the way to make room for the drums – had to piss lots of people off. I’m sure the synagogue lost a donor or two in the process. But certainly it was a risk that paid off.

4. Involve the kids. In 1973, those of us in Debbie’s youth group felt like we were in the inner circle. We heard songs before they were songs. She played with melodies during our song sessions. I know people who still have the scribbled sheets of lyrics composed during late-night sessions at camp and on retreats. Some of those things never became famous and never made it onto albums. We didn’t care. Everything was special because we were part of it. Her song Laugh At All My Dreams was composed for my graduating class. To this day, I can’t hear it without remembering that incredible time that we spent together. Lesson learned: involve the kids from the beginning.

5. It’s okay to tear it all down. Today, it’s not at all unusual to hear a Debbie Friedman melody sung in the same service as older tunes. They live comfortably with one another and everyone is comfortable (well, maybe not everyone, but many). Back in the day, though, we were bold. We tore it all apart and started from scratch. I remember sitting in the youth lounge trying to figure out a new way to do a responsive reading, to reinterpret the Aleynu (only we called it the Adoration at the time. Let us adore (let us adore) the ever-living God (the ever-living God). You remember, right?). Debbie and her music encouraged us to rethink all of it. Nothing was, you should pardon the expression, sacred. Let’s do that with Jewish education. Declare nothing is sacred and go from there.

Comments? Please chime in


January 12, 2011 - Posted by | Education | ,


  1. From the retiree corner, I think we have been trying to follow your five points for many years. Sometimes we professionals can’t get out of our own way. Debbie z”l thought out of the box and brought her own youthful vision.
    The gauntlet gas been beautifully thrown down by Leslie. Who will pick it up and create a new vision for a “tired” educational system????

    Comment by Zena Sulkes | January 12, 2011 | Reply

  2. Thanks for this! You’re right, much of Debbie’s impact came from the fact that she was willing to break the rules, and take chances.

    One to add to this list: Mentor, mentor, mentor. So many people have described feeling that they were her students. She may have had a huge personality, but she also pushed others to song lead and take on leadership, inspiring and mentoring the next few generations of Jewish leaders.

    Comment by Renee Rubin Ross | January 12, 2011 | Reply

  3. Amen. I’m trying to introduce these concepts into my classroom and it’s tougher sometimes to do than to write. What about tearing down the walls of our classrooms, literally? Not open classroom style, but maybe change the way we think of religious school classrooms (get those desks OUT of there!).

    My big question is what are we trying to teach our students with only 2-4.5 hours together every week? What do we emphasize? What’s more important than something else to teach them??

    Great post. Let’s change it all!!!

    Comment by juicyjews | January 12, 2011 | Reply

  4. Outstanding, Deb. I don’t think it’s about tearing it all down, though. I think it’s more like stripping it to the core, and rebuilding from there. We have to be willing to ask very difficult questions, and stop teaching the same old-same old. For adults, too, by the way – imagine that understanding Judaism as an adult is different than as a 13 year old! This has to start with the support (read: $$) of the greater community to create, mentor, attract and keep the best educators in the system. And stop being afraid. Be like Nachshon (Shabbat Shira and all): step into the water, and see what happens.

    Comment by anitasilvert | January 12, 2011 | Reply

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