Taking the ‘Dis’ out of Disabled

Taking the ‘Dis’ out of Disabled

Local rabbi featured in film on obstacles in religious communities

A cameraman for the ABC documentary A Place for All: Faith and Community for Persons with Disabilities films Rabbi Darby Leigh of Bnai Keshet during Simhat Torah services in October.
A cameraman for the ABC documentary A Place for All: Faith and Community for Persons with Disabilities films Rabbi Darby Leigh of Bnai Keshet during Simhat Torah services in October.

According to urbandictionary.com, to “dis” is to show no respect. Debra Gonsher Vinik and Rabbi Darby Jared Leigh of Bnai Keshet in Montclair hope to gain newfound respect for the disabled in the religious community in a new TV documentary, A Place for All: Faith and Community for Persons with Disabilities. The one-hour program — produced in conjunction with the New York Board of Rabbis, with the support of several Muslim and Christian organizations — is scheduled to air on WABC on Sunday, Dec. 27, at 1:30 p.m.

“The persons with different disabilities are really vulnerable and have less of a voice and less power and get less of the pie than anyone else,” said Vinik, who produced the program with her husband, David. “I walked away feeling that all the denominations were incredibly similar in a sense that they all wanted to be more inclusive and help more, and they all saw that there was still a long way to go.”

A Place for All consists of several vignettes about persons with disabilities as they strive to make their faith communities truly inclusive. Among them is Rabbi Darby Jared Leigh of Bnai Keshet in Montclair. Vinik learned about Leigh — the first deaf rabbi to be ordained by the Reconstructionist movement — from a video of his graduation from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia that was posted to YouTube.com.

She related a story Leigh told her during an interview. Leigh and his parents are deaf; his sister is not. “When it was time for her to be bat mitzva’d, his parents went to the rabbi and asked if they could have a person signing the service so they and their guests could be included. The rabbi said ‘no.’”

“That wouldn’t happen today,” Vinik said.

Although he knew of Bnai Keshet’s reputation as an environment that welcomed different lifestyles, Leigh told NJ Jewish News, it was not the main reason he accepted the position 18 months ago.

“I sought out Bnai Keshet because it has a reputation for being one of the strongest Reconstructionist communities in North America, and it was just an incredibly exciting place to grow and live, to be Jewish,” Leigh said in an interview at his synagogue office. “The other stuff was part of it, but not necessarily why.”

Not all denominations are so forthcoming in allowing people with handicaps to seek ordination. “I chose to be a part of the Reconstructionist movement in part because it has such a stated commitment to diversity. All of these things were very important to me.”

Does he prefer to be identified as simply a rabbi, or as a hearing-impaired rabbi trying to spread the need for inclusion?

“More of the former with elements of the latter,” he said. “I bring a few things to my rabbinate that are relatively scarce in the profession. One is the fact that I am profoundly deaf. It would be foolish of me to not think seriously about the way I can use that to have a positive social impact on the world.”

On the other hand, he said, “I don’t see myself as having a ‘deaf mission.’ I have a Jewish mission.” The numbers of deaf rabbis across the denominational board are still low. “We don’t have a minyan yet.”

‘A boundary breaker’

Leigh brought a unique teaching device to his first High Holy Day services at Bnai Keshet: a large screen for “closed captioning” the service. He was generally pleased with the reaction; in addition to assisting the profoundly deaf, the innovation helped other members of the community, including older congregants whose hearing has deteriorated.

Leigh was not bothered that the congregation might look at the screen rather than at the speaker. “I’m more disconcerted if people aren’t understanding what I’m saying and I know if there’s a chance that a dozen or two dozen people in the room can’t get what I’m teaching because of x, y, or z, that’s disconcerting.”

Leigh’s vocal patterns serve as “a constant reminder to me and to everybody else that there is something different about how I acquired the communication and language skills that I have,” he said.

Although he has not experienced any direct negative feedback from the congregation regarding his deafness, “I have to be sure that [some resistance] is out there. When you break boundaries — and I consider myself a boundary breaker — you’re going to make some people uncomfortable. But that’s okay.”

Vinik said she would like viewers to come away from her program with the idea that “we need to put the needs of people with disabilities as a priority on our list. It can’t be this kind of postscript.

“I think things are getting better every day — every time somebody realizes that we’re all temporarily-abled, that we’re all going to be ‘a person with disabilities,’” she said. “It’s just a matter of time until your hearing isn’t as good as it used to be or your eyeglasses are getting stronger and stronger. Suddenly it’s not a question of spending money to accommodate one person, it’s all of us.”

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