Dynamic, deaf rabbi bringing message of inclusivity

In Rabbi Darby Leigh’s sign language interpretation of the Shema, God is defined with a sweeping hand gesture that suggests awe; Israel with a two-part sign representing a people as well as a land. There are speedier ways to translate the prayer, but Leigh’s calls up the “ancient heavenly connection” poet Allen Ginsberg wrote about.

The result is a prayer that is as much movement as it is language, a visual poetry that befits a former actor with the National Theater of the Deaf and a self-described truth seeker who can quote Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac one minute and the lyrics of the jam band Phish the next.

Rabbi Darby Leigh

Leigh is a fire-juggling, snowboarding Generation Xer who has performed onstage (in sign language) with two rock bands — Jane’s Addiction and Twisted Sister. Of the latter, he once wrote that in his teen years, “the lyrics of [their] songs were my Torah.”

Once dubbed the “heavy metal rabbi,” Leigh, 40, is also the first deaf rabbi ordained by the Reconstructionist movement. That occurred in 2008, and ever since then, he has been with Bnai Keshet, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Montclair, N.J.; currently he is an associate rabbi there.

Born profoundly deaf, Leigh will deliver three talks on inclusion and Jewish life when he visits the Bay Area next week. His talks will come on the heels of Jewish Disability Awareness Month, an initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America.

Leigh is a big fan of inclusion in Jewish life, but he bristles sometimes when agencies feel they are helping the less fortunate.

“Congregations err by approaching accommodation — whether a Braille siddur, a ramp to the bimah or a rabbi who signs — as a ‘kindness’ to help the ‘poor and the downtrodden,’ ” he said. Such acts benefit the entire community, he said, adding that without inclusion, “you don’t have an authentic community.”

In a phone interview, during which he used a microphone and a hearing aid, Leigh said he is one of only six deaf rabbis he knows of. There were none before Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion ordained Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe in 1993, he noted.

As a kid, Leigh mimicked the actions of the other congregants at Central City Reform synagogue in New York City. But unable to discern what was being said, he missed a rich oral history.

“Storytelling is a bedrock of all communities,” he said. “Every family and close community has stories they tell and retell. I want passionately for everybody to understand what’s going on.”

In an era when families felt they had to choose either ASL (American Sign Language) or lip-reading for their children, Leigh’s parents began teaching him from birth to read lips, with the understanding that if he was not responding by age 2 they would start him on ASL. He surpassed all expectations. Today he lip-reads and signs fluently.

Leigh’s own children, daughters age 5 and 8, and his wife Randi, an OB-GYN resident, are not hearing-impaired. His wife signs fluently and his daughters are picking it up slowly, he said.

A year at Gallaudet University, a school for the hearing-impaired in Washington, D.C., in 1993 brought his identity as a deaf person into sharp focus. Then, sporting dreadlocks, he traveled for three years with the National Theater of the Deaf, winning praise from the New York Times for being “a virtuoso of an exuberant actor.” He has also performed magic and juggled fire.

Rabbi James Greene of the Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos — where Leigh will be speaking March 2 on faith and community for people with disabilities — was Leigh’s study partner at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa., in 2008. Now he is a big fan.

“Look at the way he reframes the [Shema],” Greene said. Replacing “hear” with “pay attention” creates “an active focus, versus passive receiving,” he said.

Partly the result of consciousness-raising, partly due to rapidly changing technology, the barriers associated with deafness are falling away, Leigh said.

But resistance remains in the Jewish world — particularly from an Orthodox world, he said, that continues to follow mandates set hundreds of years ago, when little was understood about deafness.

“The Talmud says we are not only not required to, we are not allowed to participate in Jewish life,” Leigh said. “Many agree a lot of that is outdated and needs to be changed. But it’s all very slow going.”

Israel lags “even further behind” than the United States, he said. “But I’m not interested in criticizing,” he added. “I’m interested in partnering.”

Rabbi Darby Leigh will appear at 8 p.m. March 1 at Temple Beth Torah, 42000 Paseo Padre Parkway, Fremont; (510) 656-7141; also at “Shabbat in the Redwoods,” a program of Congregation Emeth in Morgan Hill, 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 2. www.emeth.net or (408) 778-8200; and 7 p.m. March 2 at the Addison-Penzak JCC, 14855 Oka Road, Los Gatos; www.svjcc.org or (408) 357-7411. Each talk in ASL with vocal translation.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.