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Camp Fire to Academy: Popular Singer Teaches Reform Cantors

When singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman steps in front of the class at the Reform movement’s cantorial school this fall, she’ll be crossing more than a physical threshold.

The just-announced appointment of the popular 55-year-old musician to the faculty of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Sacred Music in New York is akin to official sanction of her folk-inspired, sing-along musical style, which has slowly but firmly embedded itself in Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative congregations nationwide.

Her songs, written over a 35-year period, range from traditional prayers reworked and set to new melodies such as “L’cha Dodi” or “Sim Shalom,” to the hard-driving, rock-influenced “Not By Might,” the powerful “Sing Unto God,” and the catchy, but sly “The Water in the Well.”

But it is as a singer for healing services that she is perhaps best known and loved. Her “Mi Shebeirach” is sung at countless synagogues and Jewish gatherings. When the diminutive Friedman takes up her guitar in front of 1,000 people, tilts her face skyward and lets that rich, yearning voice pour out, the tears often flow.

Friedman’s appointment can be seen as part of a general shift in American Jewish worship away from grand operatic performances by cantor and choir and toward greater congregational participation.

“My agenda is to modernize cantorial education to reflect the styles and needs of congregations,” said Cantor Bruce Ruben, who became director of the Reform cantorial school a year ago. “The curriculum reflected a type of cantorate that doesn’t exist anymore, or exists just in a few places.”

To be sure, Friedman isn’t the only one singing with a modern style. She’s not even the first contemporary composer on the school’s faculty, and she has taught before on an ad-hoc basis. But she’s the best known, and her songs the most widely disseminated, and that’s why her appointment to the as-yet unnamed position is seen as so significant.

Since her emergence as a composer of Jewish summer camp songs in the early 1970s, Friedman — who has no formal musical training — has long faced resistance from cantors, rabbis and others who considered her music inappropriate in synagogue.

“I’ve been a symbol,” Friedman said, with some frustration. “Rather than seeing me as a whole person, I’ve been perceived as a renegade, someone outside the system.”

Some cantors, in particular, feel she threatens traditional “nusach,” or Jewish liturgical tradition.

That, Friedman said, is nonsense. “The issue is whether we’re reaching people and helping them pray. Whatever we can do to facilitate their worship experience and spiritual self-exploration, we’re obligated to do.”

In addition to reflecting changes in musical style, Friedman’s appointment also speaks to the great expansion of the cantor’s role in today’s synagogue, Ruben said.

“Cantors are asked to do many life cycle functions, to counsel people,” he said. “That wasn’t part of the job description 20 years ago.”

Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said that whereas in the past cantors were primarily soloists, today they work closely with the rabbi, religious school director and other staff.

“I am elated,” Ellenson said, regarding Friedman’s appointment. “I feel privileged we have her on the faculty.”

Friedman will be teaching both rabbinical and cantorial students in a class where they will set traditional prayers to their own music. She will also coach cantorial students in New York, and will spend a week a year at the college’s Cincinnati and Los Angeles campuses working with rabbinical students.

Ellenson and Ruben stress that Friedman’s appointment does not signal a move away from the teaching of either traditional nusach or the so-called “art music” of the second half of the 20th-century, the melodies often used in Reform and some Conservative services. The school will continue to teach all three styles.

That is essential, said Cantor Barbara Ostfeld, director of placement for the Reform cantors’ professional association. “Any cantor worth his or her salt has to be conversant with all kinds of music in order to reach out to everyone,” she declared.

Opposition to Friedman’s music has dissipated in recent years, but there are still many who are concerned that the legacy of traditional hazzanut will be swept aside in the rush towards a contemporary sound designed to draw in the young and unaffiliated.

Cantor Jack Mendelson of Temple Israel, a large Conservative congregation in White Plains, N.Y., teaches in both the Reform and Conservative cantorial programs. He is “a huge fan” of Friedman — the two held joint singing sessions famously portrayed in the documentary “A Journey of Spirit.” But he said that most of what she and her colleagues write are “songs meant to be sung around the campfire” not in the sanctuary.

“You might say that hazzanut is in danger,” he opined. “There’s a perception among congregants that came out of the folk revolution that hazzanut is showing off, that it’s not prayer. That’s sad — hazzanut is the ultimate expression of Jewish prayer.”

So far, Friedman’s music has not made significant inroads at the H. L. Miller Cantorial School at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s flagship program.

Cantor Henry Rosenblum, dean of the school, said his students “are exposed to the melodies of people like Debbie Friedman, Shlomo Carlebach, Craig Taubman, Danny Masseng and Meir Finkelstein, among others,” all popular purveyors of contemporary Jewish liturgical music.

But Cantor Martha Novick, who also teaches at both the Reform and Conservative cantorial schools and shares Mendelson’s concern for the future of traditional hazzanut, noted that Conservative student cantors don’t get nearly as much of the new music as Reform students.

That has produced a disconnect between new Conservative rabbis and cantors, she said.

“The new JTS rabbis like the Debbie Friedmans and the Jeff Kleppers,” she said, referring to popular singer-songwriter Cantor Jeff Klepper. “That’s not what the cantorial students are prepared for. They’re just learning the traditional music.”

But change may be afoot. This week in Jerusalem, Arnold Eisen, incoming head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, told a private gathering that the school’s cantorial program would be “reassessed,” according to sources who were present.

Despite the concerns expressed by Mendelson and Novick, the argument over cantorial style is not nearly as vitriolic as it was even a decade ago. It’s more a question of where one stands along a constantly shifting spectrum of musical taste, a balancing act rather than an all-or-nothing dispute.

Steven Dress is the cantor at Temple Israel, a Conservative congregation in Sharon, Mass., and a past member of the executive board of the Cantors Assembly, the professional association of Conservative cantors. He recalls Friedman’s performance at the assembly’s national convention more than 15 years ago.

One-third of the assembly didn’t applaud when she was introduced, he said, and he shared their trepidation. But the diminutive woman with the powerful, uplifting voice and quiet respect for Jewish tradition won him over.

“Her presentation was a turning point in my growth as a hazzan and in my personal growth,” Dress said. “Although I’m certainly not one who fully embraces her style, I do embrace it for our people.”

One of her songs he used is “Not By Might,” written in English. “So it’s not rooted in nusach,” he said. “So what?”

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