The Forward Spotlights Rabbi Darby Leigh ('08) | Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

The Forward Spotlights Rabbi Darby Leigh ('08)

News

Originally published in the Forward on Feb. 2, 2021

Rabbi Darby J. Leigh

Rabbi Darby J. Leigh

From a young age, Darby Leigh knew he was on a spiritual path. Fascinated by religion and spiritual practices, he thought about becoming a rabbi but quickly dismissed it, for one main reason: He is profoundly deaf.

Today, Leigh is rabbi of Congregation Kerem Shalom in Concord, Massachusetts — and at the forefront of creating the kind of open, inclusive community he once found lacking in Jewish life.

“The mainstream Jewish community has done a really good job of telling some Jewish people they don’t really belong here, whether they’re women, queer, non-conforming, Jews of color, converted Jews, interfaith families or families where the mother is not Jewish,” he said. “I wanted to find those people and bring them into my synagogue because until they’re here it’s not really a synagogue. It’s like a private country club until it reflects the spirit of God’s creation.”

Leigh, born and raised on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, began his professional life as an actor with the National Theatre of the Deaf, then became a substance-abuse counselor, with frequent detours as a metal head.

“Heavy metal saved my life,” he said. “It expressed my rage at being a kid with a disability who was different.”

Sporting knee-length dreadlocks, he performed with the heavy metal band Twisted Sister as a sign-language performing artist then with the alt-rock band Jane’s Addiction, using his time on the tour bus to read books on spirituality and world religion —albeit not his own.

“I was interested in everyone else’s experiences,” said Leigh, who was born to two deaf parents and raised in the Reform movement. “Eastern traditions, Buddhism, Rastafarianism. I studied Sanskrit and Tibetan mantras.” For at least 10 years after high school, he didn’t set foot in a synagogue.

By his late 20s, taking a graduate program in religion at Columbia University, he was sitting in an uninspiring seminar on ancient texts when he gazed out a window and saw a homeless man panhandling on the street.

“I thought, ‘What on earth am I doing here talking about this ancient piece of obscure text when a better use of my time would be to go downstairs and give this guy a sandwich?’ He reached out to his childhood rabbi, Tom Weiner, a longtime mentor.

“I want to sing, I want to dance, I want to pray,” he told the rabbi over dinner. “I want to work with real-world issues. I want to make the world a better place.”

“He looked at me and said, ‘Darby. What do you think I do?’”

“But you’re a rabbi. I can’t do that!” Leigh told him. “I’m deaf! I can’t learn Hebrew. I can’t chant. I can’t sing.”

“I have news for you,” the rabbi said. “Lots of rabbis can’t sing, even if they think they can.”

Leigh made the commitment, and worked one-on-one with Hebrew tutors so he could pass the entrance exams. He was 29 years old when he entered the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania. He said the seminary was excited about the challenge of working with him, and helped create the tools he needed to learn liturgy, converting cassette tapes into CDs, for example, so he could recognize the tracks. He was ordained in 2008.

Leigh functions with bilateral hearing aids and by reading lips. He is fluent in American Sign Language (ASL). “If I don’t have my hearing aids on, I get nothing,” said Leigh, who conversed through Zoom. “If I didn’t have visual support there is no way I can understand.”

He is happily in his eighth year at Kerem Shalom. He also has a full life outside of the synagogue. He and his wife, Dr. Randi Leigh, a physician, have three daughters. He’s a passionate snowboarder and obstacle-course racer: In 2019 he completed a competitive Spartan Trifecta – three separate obstacle-course events in New York State, Pennsylvania, and a 16-mile endurance one in Vermont that entailed running up and down a mountain, under barbed wire, over fire, navigating tires, walls, ropes and more.

Kerem Shalom is a progressive, unaffiliated synagogue with a diverse membership and about 250 families. And as his mentor recommended, he has a good cantor, Rosalie Gerut. “I tell him, ‘You talk, I sing,’” Gerut said.

Deaf rabbis are scarce. Leigh knows of only one other who was ordained by any of the liberal or non-affiliated U.S. seminaries. He understands why strong candidates who happen to be deaf might be afraid to give it a try: He was nearly derailed himself at the beginning. While still in graduate school, he inquired at the Jewish Theological Seminary about the possibility of learning Hebrew there.

“The individual looked at me and said, ‘I’m sorry, but we don’t have anything here for people like you.’” Leigh recalled.

“I was so stunned at that moment, and so aware of my deafness and of the complicated place that deaf people have always had in Jewish tradition. Historically deaf people have been excluded from full participation in Jewish spiritual and religious life. That’s just a reality.

“This has been 1000% my experience,” he continued. “I have continuously been aware on a daily basis of living in a society that is not set up to meet my needs. But this is true for so many people – gay, trans-, bi-. If you’re a person of color here you are not living in a world set up for you. If you are a person with a disability you know this society was not set up for you”

Inclusivity as a core belief of Kerem Shalom is something a visitor picks up on immediately, even from a quick glance at the website with its “inclusion and accessibility” tab, where “Welcome” is spelled out in ASL. The website lists a host of accommodations, from automatic doors and “fidget toys” for restless children to being a “nut-aware environment” to protect those with allergies, and, most notably, to having an ASL choir.

Even though only a handful of congregants and occasional visitors know ASL, Leigh and Gerut lead the ASL choir, whose members do not sing, but instead sign specific prayers; membership is limited to those who demonstrate sincere interest in the language and deaf culture. Leigh requires they first take an ASL course, which is offered by the synagogue.

“I am hypersensitive to the fetishization in North America around ASL,” he said. “The majority of people watching something like this will go, ‘Oh, that’s so moving.’ I know it comes from a good place, but the next question is: What can I do with it that is useful, that will actually teach something? If I don’t, I’m just performing. That’s theater, not religion.”

Choir members study and discuss the prayers together to best capture the nuance and spirit of the prayer. It need not be literal. In Leigh’s ASL translation of the Shema, for example, he chooses not to use the sign for “listen” or “hear” which he says doesn’t make sense to a deaf person. He uses the sign for “pay attention” instead.

Leigh says he goes back and forth between his identity in the deaf community and living in a hearing world. “I always have one foot in both,” he said. If, in the synagogue, “my only Torah was to teach about deafness, I would not be of much use to them for very long.”

More News

College News

New Sacred Music Inspired By COVID - Rabbinical Student, Solomon Hoffman

Originally published in Religion Unplugged on April 7, 2021.

News
College News

Film chronicles the work of Rabbi Kevin Hale ('97)

The film follows the work that Hale, the Northampton rabbi, does to restore two Torahs that were among nearly 1,600 scrolls saved in Prague, capital of what was then Czechoslovakia, after World War II. Workers in a Jewish museum in the city had stored Torahs and other valuables from synagogues that had been shut down following the German occupation.

News
College News

Reconstructionist congregations partner across the miles - Rabbi Nitkin-Kaner ('16) and Rabbi Weissman ('17)

Little did these two rabbinical students imagine that within a decade they would bring together their Reconstructionist congregations — one located in Ann Arbor and one in Attleboro, Massachusetts — for joint worship services and holiday celebrations on a platform called Zoom.

News
College News

The Well & Jewish News’ 36 Under 36: Rabbi Ari Witkin ('19)

The great joy of his job is supporting Metro Detroiters leadership in the work of building and strengthening our community. In addition to his role at Federation, he currently serves as the part-time rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in Bay City.

News
College News

Rabbi Shira Stutman ('07): Hanukkah celebrates a Jewish victory, but this year the rebuilding matters more

It’s about that moment immediately after the Jews won — when, surveying the damage in their country and among their people, they realized how much work there was still to be done, and then chose to get up and start doing it. It is, in other words, the perfect allegory for the United States in 2020.

News
College News

How Faith Groups Are Bringing Sermons to Screens This Holiday Season - Rabbi Rachel Weiss ('09)

Rachel Weiss, a senior rabbi at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, said her congregation has created meaningful ways to celebrate the holiday online. Together, they’ll be cooking latkes together, watching movies and lighting candles virtually. “Because we do it on Zoom, we have windows into everyone’s homes and it’s incredibly moving to be able to see candles lit all over,” Weiss said. “It’s like windows into 100 different sanctuaries.”

News
College News

Rabbi Moti Rieber ('04) quickly takes reins as interim in Topeka

As most congregations can attest, it was hard enough preparing a virtual experience during the High Holidays this year. But try doing it with a temporary spiritual leader who has been on the job for only a matter of weeks. That was exactly the situation at Temple Beth Sholom in Topeka. Congregation president, Alan Parker, said the experience turned out fantastically thanks in large part to interim rabbi, Moti Rieber, who lives and worships in Overland Park. 

News
College News

New Rabbi at Attleboro Synagogue - Rabbi Alex Weissman ('17)

“Synagogues are one of the few places that have the potential to meaningfully, rigorously, and generously, build relationships across age, ideology, religiosity — and so many other things that keep people apart,” Weissman said. “We live in a world of isolation, hyper-individualism, and division. Synagogues have the potential to be an antidote, to show up for each other, to learn from each other, to rejoice together, and to grieve together.”

News
College News

Data Breach Notification

Recently, we were notified by one of our software vendors, Blackbaud, that they experienced a ransomware attack from February 2020 to May 2020.

News
College News

Trauma, Healing & Resilience for Rabbis, Jewish Educators and Organizers - Rabbi Jessica Rosenberg ('18)

“This guide offers, I hope, valuable context, distillation of terms, tools, and most importantly, questions that rabbis and educators can ask to engage the ongoing process of integrating trauma awareness into our Jewish communities.” - Rabbi Jessica Rosenberg

News
College News

Rabbi takes a non-traditional path to Temple Sinai Cinnaminson - Rabbi Michael Perice ('20)

He started out small, reading books and going to services more often. But no matter how much his newly excavated faith grew, he said, becoming a rabbi was still the farthest reality in his mind.

News
College News

Boycotting Twitter to protest its handling of anti-Semitism could backfire - Rabbi Emily Cohen ('18)

In that sense, the digital walkout’s mission is one I fully support. But, of course, effective action is a little more complicated than that.

News
College News

Lessons From Transitioning in the Pandemic - Rabbi James Greene ('08)

Then, in early March the world changed forever, and my role at Camp Laurelwood went from incoming ED to Crisis Manager.

News
College News

What it’s like to start a job as a rabbi mid-pandemic - Rabbi Michael Perice ('20)

When Perice started the job last week, he was still living in Philadelphia. He has met his congregants only once — right before he started the job when he made the 40-minute drive to the congregation for a socially distanced Shabbat service held in the synagogue’s parking lot.

News
College News

In Seattle’s protest zone, rabbis at chaplaincy table create new rituals to heal - Rabbi David Basior ('15)

“I experienced curiosity about our presence,” Basior, the rabbi at Reconstructionist congregation Kadima, told The Times of Israel about that first night. “Someone came wanting a blessing. I asked a little about themselves and gave them a blessing. It was pretty ecumenical. They didn’t identify as Jewish and I didn’t ask.”

News