Concord rabbi listens with his soul
CONCORD — Rosh Hashana begins Wednesday night, and on a recent day, Rabbi Darby Leigh needed to practice blowing the shofar — the ram’s horn that is tooted on the Jewish new year and other high holidays.
After hitting a few high notes inside his synagogue’s sanctuary, he cradled the 3-foot-long instrument, threw a corner of his prayer shawl over his shoulder, and stepped into a courtyard of Congregation Kerem Shalom, just a few miles away from Walden Pond in Concord.
“It’s all about nature. Peace and love and nature,” he said, before planting his feet in front a tree and blowing the shofar toward an open field. The sound pierced the quiet. After some more practice, in which he was able to find a lower key, Leigh seemed satisfied. “I prefer the lower bassy sound — I can feel it better,” he said when he returned to the sanctuary.
There, he noticed a cricket jumping under a row of seats, and soon he was on his hands and knees cupping the insect before returning it to the courtyard. When he returned, he broke into a big smile.
Leigh, who is 40 and was born deaf, always seems to be smiling, and he exudes enthusiasm as he goes about the simple tasks of the day. He is just the second deaf rabbi to lead a congregation in the United States.
“My tagline is, ‘my ears are broken but I make a great listener,’ ” said Leigh, who has developed his own way to listen to people. He wears two hearing aids that amplify sounds, lip reads, and observes body language. On the phone, Leigh shuts off a hearing aid and clicks on a phone switch that changes over to an electromagnetic frequency.
“I concentrate really hard and I don’t get everything. But I puzzle it together and get enough,” said Leigh, who joined Kerem Shalom, a congregation of about 250 members, in August.
“He has a way of electrifying people so that they want to listen and they want to learn, and he does it not with bells and whistles but with a true depth of knowledge and character,” said Miriam Zarchan, a co-president of Kerem Shalom.
As a youth, Leigh liked performing — whether it was as a fire juggler, street magician, or off on a mountain snowboarding. But he was walled off from many things that people take for granted — such as watching a movie, going to the theater, or even watching TV (closed captioning had yet to be implemented when he was a child).
Growing up as a Jewish teen in Manhattan, he was drawn to listening to heavy metal bands. Leigh’s body found joy in the chords and musical vibration that emanated from the emphasis on bass and percussion. He also found community and faith when he attended concerts.
“I found God in a mosh pit,” said Leigh, who attended his first concert, a Twisted Sister performance in New York, when he 14. “Heavy metal saved my life. The experience of growing up deaf in the hearing world means that you grow up as a minority. So many of us have the experience growing up where we feel like we don’t fit in, or we don’t fully belong.
“I found in heavy metal a music and a culture that supported individuality and rejection of the social norm. I found a culture that said, ‘you don’t have to be like that. You’re not. It’s OK to be different, it’s OK to be you. And guess what? There’s a whole army of metal heads out here like you, that are “freaks” and don’t fit into normal society.’ And the celebration of that and the outlet for anger and frustration as a teenage adolescent male just totally resonated with me.”
After studying religion in college, Leigh — who alternately colored his hair blue, green, and red and also fashioned a Mohawk at one point — began to grow dreadlocks. He kept them for about 10 years, including a four-year stint when he toured as an actor for the National Theater of the Deaf.
While he had studied religions in college, including Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, he knew little about Judaism, and didn’t set foot in a synagogue during most of his 20s. His return to Judaism started when he began to research dreadlocks, which led him to the revelation that Rastafarians, in part, grow dreadlocks to fulfill a Nazirite oath of not cutting one’s hair, cited as one of the 613 commandments in the Torah.
A trip to Poland, where he accompanied teens on the March of the Living — a silent walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau — served as an epiphany. There, where Nazis killed about 1 million Jews, he remembers crouching over a puddle of water and feeling a connection to his grandparents, who had survived the Holocaust, and humanity.
“I got called,” he explained. “And the call was this really strong, really clear voice inside me that said it’s time to go home.”
Since his ordination as a Reconstructionist rabbi in 2008, he has led a congregation in Montclair, N.J. and served as rabbi of the New Shul, a progressive synagogue in Manhattan.
In between his rabbinical duties, he still found time to listen to heavy metal music, and in recent years he has appeared on stage alongside his heroes, Twisted Sister and Jane’s Addiction, to sign their songs to their fans.
Craig Levine, co-president of one of Leigh’s last congregations, Bnai Keshet in New Jersey, said Leigh brought spirit and intellectual depth to the congregants. “I address his deafness last, because after a short period of acclimation it became largely irrelevant. Its principal effect was making many of us more mindful of differences, across multiple dimensions — a profound gift he presented with enormous grace,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Leigh has been known to write his sermons while listening to heavy metal. His Rosh Hashana message this year will focus on Psalm 27 and the desire to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
For Leigh, the interpretation is simple: “It’s the ability to cultivate the expressions of appreciation, gratitude, awe, and wonder for your life, and to be able to remember that every day.”