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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

Batya Ungar-Sargon
July 29, 2013
(Erik Mace Design)
(Erik Mace Design)
This article is part of Jews With Disabilities.
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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.”

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.”

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.

In addition to Dubowe and Leigh, there are four Orthodox deaf rabbis who, while they do not lead hearing congregations, all work in some capacity to support the spiritual needs of the deaf Jewish community: Rabbi Fred Friedman, born in Austria to parents who survived the Holocaust, was ordained by Ner Israel Yeshiva of Baltimore and is the 2011-2013 Conference Rabbi of the Jewish Deaf Congress. Rabbi David Kastor, also of Baltimore and also ordained by Ner Israel, started the Ahavas Israel School for the deaf in Frederick, Md., and has worked for Our Way for 25 years. Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Kakon is the Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshivas Nefesh Dovid for the deaf, and Soudakoff runs Jewish Deaf Multimedia.

In June, the Jewish Deaf Congress, established in 1956 in New York City, held its 28th biennial conference in Washington, D.C., during which rabbis, attorneys, professors, and life coaches addressed the audience of 200 on topics from learning Israeli sign language to what the program describes as “legal issues surrounding being a deaf Jewish individual in the United States seeking spiritual accessibility.”

In addition to the Jewish Deaf Congress, a number of organizations serve the needs of deaf American Jews. In New York, Our Way, the Orthodox Union’s agency, puts out publications of Jewish prayers and organizes weekend Shabbatons that connect deaf Jews with local congregations. Additionally, it organizes a Jewish Deaf Singles Registry. The Jewish Deaf Resource Center of the UJA Federation works to establish connections and build bridges between deaf individuals and Jewish communities. The UJA also funds the New York Jewish Community Deaf Interpreting Fund, which pays for monthly Shabbat services sign-language interpreters.

Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf, a Reform synagogue, has been serving Los Angeles’ deaf community since 1960; it has a community of 50 families, and its rabbi is hard of hearing. Chicago boasts the Hebrew Seminary of the Deaf. But the biggest Jewish deaf community is in Washington, D.C., according to Jeffrey Cohen, president of Washington Society of Jewish Deaf, because of Gallaudet University but also because the federal government is the nation’s biggest employer of persons with disabilities. The Washington Society of Jewish Deaf holds interpreted High Holiday Services, lectures, and cultural events that are typically attended by about 100 people. The Hillel at Gallaudet offers its community interpreted Shabbat services every Saturday.

Cohen feels that while the language of a “split” is too harsh, deaf individuals tend to “gravitate toward their comfort zone, with their deaf peers, because of the communication barrier.”

Dubowe noted that “the deaf world is quite complex,” she wrote. “There are deaf people who only use ASL, there are some who speak and read lips, and there are some who do both.” She added that a debate exists among deaf individuals about the desirability of interpreters. Some “want direct communication,” she wrote in an email, “which is why it’s more desirable to be in a deaf community where there is a common language, a common culture and history. There have been tremendous strides to include deaf people in the Jewish community but due to the fact that most do not know ASL, there is a greater preference to be surrounded by other deaf people.”

“The ideal picture would be to provide training and education for potential Jewish deaf leaders including rabbis and educators and so forth,” Dubowe wrote. “However, there are very few that would be motivated to do this because they have limited exposure to the Jewish community as a whole.”

Despite the communication barrier, Cohen feels certain that the future of the Jewish deaf community is very strong. “There is a need,” he said. “People are proud to be Jewish. They want to connect to their Jewish heritage.”

Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.

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