Although she herself is not deaf, Dena Bodian developed a fascination for American Sign Language during her days as a member of the Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael and as a student at the Nathan Bohrer-Abraham Kaufman Hebrew Academy of Morris County in Randolph.
“I was in Florence Heller’s kindergarten class at Morristown Jewish Center, and she taught the Sh’ma with sign language,” she said. “Later, when I attended the Hebrew Academy, we used to bentsch [say the grace after meals] in sign language.
“I signed the Sh’ma to myself at night for 10 or 15 years. It didn’t seem strange to me at the time, but I guess it was quite unorthodox.”
Unorthodox or not, it stuck.
“Having been exposed to sign language at a very young age — before I could even read — I guess I always equated sign language with Judaism,” Bodian said.
In June, the Morristown native was able to combine both passions when she was ordained as a rabbi by the Hebrew Seminary of the Deaf, a Chicago-based institution that trains clergy and teachers to serve the needs of the Jewish deaf and hearing-impaired.
Bodian, 31, and two other women rabbis were ordained by the 13-year-old seminary, which is associated with the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.
Ordination marked the latest peak in a lifetime of involvement and early leadership in Jewish life.
“I grew up in a kosher home and we made Shabbos every week. I remember as a kid every Friday night my father took me to shul,” Bodian recalled. “Now that I look back, it was probably a way to give my mom a break — other people took their kids to the park; we went to shul. I was the only kid there.”
She decided herself by fourth grade that she wanted to attend day school, and her parents, Louis Bodian and Helen Kloder, enrolled her at HAMC. At that time, it was affiliated with the Conservative movement and had not yet adopted an egalitarian approach. (Since 2006 it has been affiliated with the pluralistic day school umbrella organization RAVSAK.)
“When I was there, girls did not have a part in services. Having that as a contrast forced me to become really active in the shul environment.” She dropped out after sixth grade, she said, because she would not be allowed to chant from the Torah.
Bodian took on leadership roles from a young age at her synagogue and gives credit to Cantor Maimon Attias, now retired, and synagogue member Herman Frigand, now in his 90s. Attias assigned one Torah reading to post-bar and bat mitzva kids every week; Frigand created the “minyanaires club,” led by teens once a month.
These activities, Bodian said, “forced me to take ownership in a positive way — it was a great model.”
She continued her involvement at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where she ultimately received a master’s degree in art and architecture, before heading to Leesburg, Va. There she served as a lay leader for a small synagogue, worked for an educational video company licensing images, and took night classes in ASL translation. A night school classmate told her about the Hebrew Seminary of the Deaf.
“I thought, Wow!,” she recalled.
She dropped out of the night classes, quit her job, moved to Chicago, and never looked back.
Signing has always held a certain fascination for Bodian. “It has a fantastic aesthetic,” she said. But even after receiving ordination from HSD, she said, she is “not super-fluent.”
That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a significant skill set. She gave her commencement address in both English and in ASL.
She also has a deep understanding of the barriers people who are deaf face in joining Jewish communal life.
“Deaf Jews are a demographic that frequently go unheard. It’s hard to find a synagogue that is not wheelchair accessible, but they often fail to address the linguistic issues deaf people face,” Bodian said. “The deaf community not only don’t hear the prayers, they can’t hear the sermons, they can’t shmooze during kiddush. It’s not a handicap issue you can solve with a hearing device; it’s much more a linguistic issue.
“It’s like speaking Spanish or Russian — except Hebrew is no longer the universal equalizer.”
Bodian said she doesn’t plan to focus her rabbinate exclusively on the deaf community.
“That’s not a job I think I’d be good at,” she said, pointing out that she might not even fit a deaf community’s requirements. In Washington, DC, for example, a deaf community decided they wanted a rabbi — but they expressed a preference for a native signer.
“But I will know how to make my community more accessible through providing the right resources and offering education for the broader community regarding what it is deaf Jews need to be part of the community,” she said.
And she will be able to work with a hearing family with a deaf child, for example, in a way that another rabbi couldn’t.
Following ordination, Bodian is continuing to work at her student pulpit, Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago. For now, she has no plans to return east. After spending her fourth year at JTS in New York City, she said, “I learned that I can’t stand the pace of Manhattan.”
Currently, she spends much of her time offering adult education classes, working with the synagogue’s burial society, and running a conversion program.
“I have the best job,” she said. “All I have to do is make people fall in love with Judaism!”