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Deaf Rabbi Prepares To Lead a Hearing Congregation in Massachusetts

‘I may not hear very well, but I really know how to listen,’ says Rabbi Darby Leigh, as deaf Jews make strides in the community

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On Aug. 1, Rabbi Darby Leigh will begin his tenure as leader of Congregation Kerem Shalom in Concord, Mass. Leigh is “profoundly deaf.” Without his hearing aids, he is unable to distinguish sounds below 90 decibels (the average range of a hearing person is 0-120 decibels, with speech being somewhere around 60 decibels). With his new position, Leigh joins a very small cadre: He will be just the second deaf rabbi to lead a hearing congregation in America.

Leigh’s position signifies the strides being made toward inclusion of deaf individuals in the larger Jewish community, according to advocates. “The concept is wonderful,” said Rabbi Eliezer Lederfeind, founder of Our Way, the Orthodox Union’s outreach program for the deaf. Lederfeind sees Leigh’s hiring as testament to the fact that “more and more Jewish [deaf] children are being mainstreamed,” due to growing awareness of deaf Jews and their needs. Jacob Salem, the newly elected president of the Jewish Deaf Congress, agrees that strides have been made in some communities. Salem, who is deaf and who spoke to me on the phone through an interpreter, said he was excited about the idea of a second deaf rabbi serving a hearing community: “To see a rabbi signing, to have that direct access, it’s great and it will inspire others and raise awareness,” he said.

But some don’t see an expanding future for deaf rabbis. The first deaf rabbi of a hearing congregation, Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe, has been one of two rabbis of the 630-family congregation Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks, Calif., for the past 16 years. Dubowe, who was ordained at Hebrew Union College, does not believe that the future holds many more deaf rabbis. “I do not think it is becoming more prevalent,” she wrote in an email. “Many Jewish deaf people are not associated with the Jewish community because of the lack of accessibility. Most deaf people tend to be a part of the greater deaf community, because they share a common language and there are no barriers.”

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff agrees. A Chabad rabbi who is deaf and who runs the website Jewish Deaf Multimedia, which posts videos of Torah learning rendered in ASL, he wrote in an email: “Rarely will you find someone who successfully straddles both cultures. Many deaf people either opt to immerse themselves all the way in the deaf world, to the detriment of their Jewish identity. But you will also find deaf people who go the other extreme and don’t attend deaf events or programs, because they don’t feel at home there.”

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Leigh, who wears bilateral hearing aids he described as amplifiers in both ears, says he depends on a combination of visual and auditory cues to communicate—60 percent lip reading, 40 percent what his hearing aids pick up. “My brain puzzles things together because of all the training from my youth,” he said. For example, “I might recognize the first part of the word,” which he will supplement with lip reading. In phone conversations, such as the one we conducted, Leigh turns off one hearing aid and uses a phone with a switch that allows for a change of frequency to electromagnetic frequency; his hearing aid reads that data.

Born deaf, Leigh describes his upbringing as anomalous in a number of ways. His parents used an approach that was novel 40 years ago: immersing him in oral and auditory therapy, teaching him to speak, and giving him a hearing aid at 9 months. Leigh’s parents also chose to mainstream him through high school.

Dubowe’s history is similar. She was also mainstreamed and “grew up with an oral background,” she wrote in an email. “Most of my life I have been involved in the Jewish hearing community. I was fully mainstreamed, and I was usually the only deaf student in my classes, including Hebrew school.” Dubowe first learned ASL in college.

Leigh went to the University of Rochester, where he majored in religion, and when his friends went abroad for their junior year, Leigh, in search of his own “self-exploration, community, and role models,” spent a year at Gallaudet University for the deaf in Washington, D.C. He spent four years touring with the National Theater of the Deaf and then moved back to New York where he says he worked as a substance-abuse counselor at the New York Society for the Deaf.

Leigh began to think about going back to school. “I was oscillating between the rabbinate and academia, but I didn’t know any deaf rabbis,” he said. “I had always had the idea of being a rabbi in the back of my mind, but it seemed beyond my scope—I didn’t know Hebrew. I can’t chant.” But Leigh received support from his childhood rabbi, Tom Weiner (currently at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, N.Y.). “He told me, of course you can be a rabbi! He gave me that push,” Leigh said. But not everyone was so encouraging. “When I was in grad school [at Columbia],” Leigh told me, “I asked the admissions director of a major American rabbinical school about taking some classes in Hebrew to have more access to texts, and he said, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have anything here for people like you.’ I’ll never forget that. It was very painful. But it almost made me want to do it even more.”

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Deaf Rabbi Prepares To Lead a Hearing Congregation in Massachusetts

‘I may not hear very well, but I really know how to listen,’ says Rabbi Darby Leigh, as deaf Jews make strides in the community