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Deafness Doesn't Hinder This Student's Quest

January 25, 2007 By:
Ryan Teitman
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Darby Leigh
Darby Leigh has been an actor, a social worker and a student of comparative religions. But one thing he never thought he could possibly be is a rabbi, and for one reason: He is profoundly deaf. But the 33-year-old is now in his fifth year of the six-year rabbinical program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, and has been meeting with considerable success.

Leigh was born deaf on New York's Upper East Side. As he explained: "Because both of my parents were deaf, they knew they had a chance of having a deaf child." Doctors eventually confirmed his mother's suspicions.

"[But] they decided that they wanted their deaf child -- me -- to speak and listen," said Leigh, who noted that the standard for the time was to teach children American Sign Language.

At 6 months, Leigh received two large hearing aids, and started working with a speech therapist. His mother decided that by age 2, if her son was not showing progress, he'd be taught sign language. Yet by then, something remarkable had happened: Leigh had more language development than his hearing peers.

Leigh went to Hebrew school, continuing past his Bar Mitzvah, and explored literature classes in high school. "I wanted to find what is true and real in the world," he said, looking for answers via reading and writing.

He attended the University of Rochester, studying world religions. While other students spent their junior year abroad, Leigh spent his at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., a liberal-arts college for the deaf and hard of hearing, where he immersed himself in deaf culture.

After college, he got involved with the National Theater of the Deaf. He spent three years as an actor, and played the lead in Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt.

By then, the touring lifestyle had worn him down: "I got tired of living out of a suitcase."

He returned to New York and began working as a substance-abuse counselor at the New York Society for the Deaf before heading off to graduate school at Columbia University to study comparative religion.

"I studied everyone's religion except mine in college," he said. He had thought of becoming a rabbi, but learning Hebrew -- or any other foreign language -- seemed too daunting a task.

Leigh took classes at the Jewish Theological Seminary and at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, and managed to find Hebrew tutors. Eventually, he wound up at RRC; today, he lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Randi, a medical student, and their 2-year-old daughter, Rayna.

"It's like a crucible; it's forging us into rabbis," said Leigh of his experience so far at RRC. The school had never had a deaf student, and the staff wanted to see if they could meet the challenge. "They really established that they wanted it to be a reciprocal relationship," said Leigh.

He has interpreters in his classes, and colleagues help him take notes, since he cannot read lips and write at the same time.

During his third and fourth years, he received the Cooperberg-Rittmaster Rabbinical Internship to Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York City, where he was given immediate responsibility. "From day one, you get to do pretty much everything that a rabbi does," he said.

Leigh had been worried about how the congregation would perceive him due to his deafness, and whether he could function as a rabbi. But the two-year experience dispelled his concerns.

"My confidence grew, every week, every semester," he said.

He's now the student rabbi at Ottawa Reconstructionist Havurah in Canada, where he travels once a month to work with the Bar and Bat Mitzvah students, teach adult education and lead services.

"I really believe that Judaism is a wellspring," said Leigh, who wants to help others find their paths to truth -- just as he has.

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