The Tapestry Woven By Debbie Friedman, z’l. Rabbi Heidi Cohen’s Eulogy

And sing unto God she did.

My name is Rabbi Heidi Cohen, and as the Rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom and Cheryl Friedman, we welcome you. I am honored to share the officiation for this service with Rabbi Richard Levy of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

We are a community in shock, disbelief, and great sorrow.  Yet, here we are gathered to say goodbye and pay tribute to a woman who was our teacher, our mentor, our inspiration, our strength, our artist, our composer, our liturgist, our friend – Deborah Lynn Friedman. And while we are in shock and each of us are grieving our great loss and the loss to the Global Jewish Community, we are gathered here to love, support and mourn with Debbie’s family. For while she was all of this and so much more to many of us, Debbie was first and foremost, a daughter to Freda and her father of blessed memory, Gabrielle; a sister to Cheryl and Barbara; a niece to Ann and Irlene; and a cousin to Amy, Debbie, Leeza, and Gary and Randy of blessed memory. Today, we are hear supporting and loving each of you – gathering your tears with our own and holding you so as not to let you fall in this time of overwhelming grief.

Today, we will cry, but we will smile as well at the memories of a life that brought so many gifts and blessings to not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of people. Yet how awesome that each of those individuals feel personally connected to Debbie, calling her “theirs.” And while she might look at all of this – at all of us, gathered here and think, ‘what’s the big fuss? I don’t need all this,’ as someone commented to me earlier, ‘well, SHE started it!’

Today, we weave a tapestry of memory that will only be completed over time and by many hands. Our threads will be woven on the loom with the warp being the foundation of Debbie’s life and family. The threads are multicolored and multi-textured, provided by each weaver who shared in a moment of Debbie’s life, in a time in which she learned more about the world and herself. Each thread is essential to the tapestry for each brings depth and character to the completed piece. Yet, as with any tapestry, it is never fully completed, there is always one piece that is left undone. This is true today, for Debbie’s life was ended too soon and there is still so much that remains to be added.

Debbie’s foundation begins with her childhood. Stories written by Debbie herself tell of the difficult life she faced as a child being born in Utica, New York. Her family made a modest living and as a teenager, Debbie worked with her Mom, Freda, as a salad preparer. Her parents, Freda and Gabrielle always reminded Debbie that she would have to take care of herself someday and she truly took that to heart.

Debbie and her sister’s, Cheryl and Barbara, spent many days laughing and sharing stories together. The family’s laughter then and now created tidal waves of joy that would pass over all those around them.  Music was an important language in the home and while Barbara never wanted Debbie to watch her play, Debbie would spend hours listening through the door as Barbara played the piano.

Debbie looked for an escape from the chaos in the home and found a synagogue youth group. She became very involved in youth group and synagogue life and after much negotiating, her parents allowed her to walk to shul for Shabbat services rather than ride. While in the synagogue, a teacher spent time reviewing the Shema and V’ahavta. He seemed to emphasize the word “bam” every time they recited the prayer. Debbie understood this as, ‘it’s YOU, YOU have to do this!’

Debbie began to weave the language of music and the bonds to synagogue life together. She picked up the guitar at 12 and when her mother spoke to the music teacher about what she saw as Debbie’s musical gift and the need for her to learn to read music, the teacher quickly said, ‘please don’t do that…it would only ruin her amazing gift to play from her heart.’

Through these humble beginnings and the love of family, especially shared over these past few years so closely with her mother, Freda, her sister, Cheryl, and her Aunt Ann, Debbie’s tapestry begins to unfold before us this day and we begin to see each color and texture in full array.

Read prior to Eil Malei at First Night Shiva

Debbie shared with us her own words that are so poignant today. She wrote in her article, “Shattered and Whole,”

“Our time in this world is limited and we must journey honestly, accepting that our gifts are not for us alone, but meant to be put forth in this world as a way of reconstructing the once whole, now shattered vessel whose shards, the mystics tell us, are scattered all over the universe.”

Debbie’s journey throughout her life was filled with sharing her gifts with so many. Just look around today, listen to so many voices tomorrow and the days ahead, and we will hear the stories of those whose lives Debbie touched.

While our souls our shattered at the loss we experience today, we gather the shards together and we create the whole memory that will continue to not only bless us, that will bless her family and that which will bless generations to come.

New Year’s Resolutions – Vows for the Soul

The secular new year brings about the infamous New Year’s Resolutions, promises for what one hopes to accomplish over the next year or change about one’s self.  There is the usual New Year’s resolution: I promise to eat healthier, lose weight and go to the gym more often. As expressed on the morning news shows, the lines for the treadmills are extremely long this week, however if you wait until next week, they will quickly diminish.

This is not a new concept – making vows for the benefit of one’s self. This idea of neder, or a vow freely made, is seen throughout the Bible. From Jacob promising that if he is delivered safely from the hands of his very angry brother and that his family will be safe, he will follow the God of his father and grandfather; to the Israelites at the border of Canaan who promise that if they are able to enter the land safely, they will follow God’s commands. There are those individual vows, such as that made by Hannah when she prayed that if God blesses her with a child, she would devote that child to the service of the Temple. These autonomous invocations made by individuals requesting to be delivered safely or be given a reward of some merit, are found throughout history.

Today, we seek a modern theology in regard to the making of vows. How do we as individuals embrace this concept? And to whom are we responsible for when we make them?

In a theological sense, we are asking about what are the vows that we make for our own religious lives today? We seek to learn the formula of commitment to God, Torah, and the people of Israel. But we also seek to find the commitment we are making to ourselves in deepening our own religious lives.  The beauty of nedarim, vows, is that they are meant for the individual. The individual initiates it, makes it privately, speaks the words alone, and then evaluates where they are in fulfilling or editing the vow in order to be successful.

We initiate new vows for ourselves throughout the year – the High Holy Days, Birthdays, and the secular New Year. There are always moments in which we are able to evaluate our lives and set personal goals to better ourselves and enrich our lives. So along with eating healthy and going to the gym more often, what will be the vows you are going to make for your spiritual self?  Remember, these are your vows, these are vows that are a gift you give to yourself to enhance not only your body but your soul as well.