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Debbie Friedman, Beloved Jewish Composer and Performer, Dead at 59

Deborah Lynn Friedman, the beloved and influential composer and singer who transformed contemporary American Jewish prayer and music, died Sunday of complications of pneumonia. She would have turned 60 in February.

Friedman, known to everyone as “Debbie,” had been hospitalized for the past week in an Orange County, Calif. hospital after falling ill while at the Jewish learning conference Limmud England at the end of December. A video of her singing her song “L’chi Lach,” a song about being on life’s journey, at the conference closing can be seen here:

Sandy Hart, a family friend in California, said that Friedman will be buried early this week in Orange County, where her mother and sister, who are themselves unwell, both live. Arrangements are presently being finalized. Friedman had moved from New York to the area last April to teach at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College campus there and to help care for her mother.

Friedman’s music—ubiquitous at Jewish summer camps and many Reform services—married Jewish text and liturgy with the folk tunes she came of age listening to. She was liberal Judaism’s counterpart to Shlomo Carlebach, her music allowing everyone to feel connected with sacred prayer even if they knew no Hebrew or were unfamiliar with the prayerbook.

“She gave non-traditional Jews the tools with which to open up a part of their spiritual selves that most of them didn’t know existed,” said Deborah Lipstadt, the Holocaust scholar and a close friend of Friedman’s for more than 30 years. “Her concerts were turned into services. People might have gone for entertainment, but came out having had a profound experience. She taught so many people that Judaism has a deep, abiding soul that can speak to you.”

Lipstadt, who flew Sunday from New York to California to be with Friedman’s family, said that the outpouring from friends and fans of Friedman’s “is beyond anything I’ve ever seen. She had a unique ability to touch people in a way I have seen few other liturgists or performers do.”

Friedman, who was one of the Forward 50 for 2010, struggled for many years with poor health, but was a seemingly indefatigable leader of worship, healing services, women’s seders and concerts.

“There were a lot of tears in her life in terms of her condition, but tremendous joy in what she was able to give,” Lipstadt said. “Debbie was never happier than when she was giving something that allowed you to take it and then give back.”

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