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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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Leigh eventually attended the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where he said he received lots of support and was ordained in 2008. “They were very upfront about it being a brand new experience for them, and that we were going to be partners in this experience, and I found an amazing partnership with them,” Leigh said. Their support of his circumstances ranged from sign-language interpreters to FM radio-system support, to one-on-one Hebrew language support.

After rabbinical school, Leigh was hired at Reconstructionist synagogue Bnai Keshet in Montclair, N.J., where he served as an associate rabbi. Craig Levine, co-president of Bnai Keshet, said in a phone interview, “In the main, his deafness didn’t matter. The exceedingly graceful way in which he handled his deafness reminded members of the community to be more inclusive in everyday life. For example, don’t cover your mouth if someone is reading your lips! He reminded us to operate in the world better, which was a gift for which we are so grateful.” Leigh also brought other gifts to the community, in the form of Shema in sign language, and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Shabbat”—where Sabbath liturgy is sung to rock tunes, and the service is followed by a party. (Leigh is a “big-time heavy-metal fan,” according to Levine.)

Vice President of Spiritual Life for Kerem Shalom, which he described as “an unaffiliated Synagogue with a Reconstructionist orientation,” Marty Plotkin sat on the search committee that hired Leigh from a pool of 27 applicants. “When we saw Rabbi Darby’s résumé, we were extremely intrigued,” Plotkin said. “It didn’t explicitly say, ‘I’m deaf,’ but we surmised that it might be the case from his former activities.” The next step in the hiring process was a phone conversation. “Being on the phone with him was no problem at all. That was our first intimation that his deafness was not going to be a show-stopper,” Plotkin said.

The conversation went well. “There were moments during that discussion that literally brought us to tears,” Plotkin recalled. Kerem Shalom has many interfaith families, and the search committee asked Leigh how he would invite people who are not Jewish or whose Jewish contact is ambivalent or distant, especially in the context of life-cycle events. “Rabbi Darby’s response was to refer to his own experience. His relationship to Judaism required accommodation. His passion for access—whether in the context of disability or disaffection—influences his interfaith approach.”

After a weekend with Leigh, the feedback from the congregation was almost uniformly positive, Plotkin said. People had concerns, most of which the search committee already knew were not going to be issues, such as whether they would understand him and he them, whether he could relate to both old and young congregants, and worries about how his deafness would play out. Leigh told the hiring committee: “I may not hear very well, but I really know how to listen.” Plotkin said he and the committee “found that to be very much the case.” Another concern related to the musical nature of Kerem Shalom. The community was looking for a rabbi who could add to its rich musical life, Plotkin said. However, it quickly became apparent that “Rabbi Darby’s experience of music is very different from ours, but he is a great lover of music,” Plotkin said. In the words of one congregant, according to Plotkin, “He may not be able to carry a tune, but he can make your soul sing.” Plotkin and the search committee felt certain that Leigh would be a great enabler of music, motivating others to step up and “fill in around the edges,” as Plotkin put it, learning to do themselves the things that Leigh may not be capable of, such as chanting from the Torah.

“He is such a mensch, such a passionate and spiritual person, with so much wisdom and clarity about what he wants,” Plotkin said. “This is a great moment for our community.”

***

There are challenges facing deaf rabbis who want to lead hearing congregations—although they are not insurmountable. After leading a hearing congregation for 16 years, Dubowe said the biggest challenge associated with being a deaf rabbi “would be when I am unable to understand someone, especially one who has a thick accent or a long beard that covers the lips. I am always willing to ask others to help me understand someone if it’s a challenge. I read lips, so most of the time I am able to carry a conversation with others.” Dubowe, who wore hearing aids her whole life, received a cochlear implant three years ago. “The implant has helped me tremendously, and I am grateful to have it,” she wrote in an email.

Then there are religious issues; Judaism does include certain restrictions around deafness, Leigh noted. “There are numerous historical restrictions,” both of the “not allowed” sort and of the equally painful “not required” sort, Leigh said, comparing the restrictions against deaf Jews to those against women. For instance, deaf individuals are not obligated to hear Shofar, or Torah reading. Judaism sometimes gives one the feeling that “the only real, full Jews are able-bodied, heterosexual men of a certain age,” Leigh said. “I don’t wish to be apologetic. Some of the history is painful.” But today, deaf individuals are being better-integrated into some communities (Leigh stressed the some), much like women and LGBT individuals have been.

Soudakoff had a similar take on an increasingly accommodating religious perspective on deaf individuals. The Talmud exempted all people who are deemed to be cheresh—or deaf—from the commandments; for example, Soudakoff writes, a cheresh’s shechita is not kosher, and he cannot divorce if he is married to a hearing woman; his marriage is not binding in the Torah. But cheresh refers to one who is both deaf and incapable of speech. As more and more deaf people learned to speak, “rabbis began to write that a deaf person who learned to speak verbally is not a cheresh anymore,” Soudakoff wrote, “nor is a deaf person who learned to hear with hearing aids. So, if you ask me if there are any general restrictions now for the regular deaf person—I would have to say no, not other than the things that are naturally not applicable to deaf people.” For example, the rabbis have made a deaf person’s marriage binding.

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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