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.”