Imagine taking a graduate school class — a small one, with maybe a dozen students — and for the entire year, not being able to understand a single word the professor said. For your final examination, you have to rely on notes compiled from your classmates and pray they understood the material enough to effectively teach you.
For Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe, who was ordained 20 years ago as the world’s first Reform deaf rabbi, that’s how she got through one of her first-year rabbinical school classes in Israel.
“There was one professor in particular who had a beard that completely covered his mouth, and there was absolutely no way I could see what he was saying,” said Dubowe, a spiritual leader at Temple Adat Elohim, a Reform congregation of more than 600 families in Thousand Oaks.
Dubowe was born with moderately severe/profound hearing loss. She communicates mainly through spoken English, although she can read lips and is fluent in American Sign Language (ASL). Others may think this made her different — especially as a member of the clergy — but she never saw it that way.
“My intention was not to be different from anyone else,” Dubowe said. “I don’t feel different from others because there are certain things that I don’t hear. That was not the way I was raised. My parents never said, ‘Because you’re deaf you should or shouldn’t do this.’ They said, ‘You’re Rebecca, and you’re interested in that, so do it.’ ”
The Los Angeles native didn’t initially know that she wanted to become a rabbi, but during a summer-long stay with family in Israel, she began to feel a much deeper bond with her heritage.
“I became very connected with my cousin’s mother-in-law, who was a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, and she knew I was very interested in learning and speaking Hebrew,” Dubowe said. “She only spoke in Hebrew with me, and she was very patient. She told me lots of stories about her life and being a pioneer of the kibbutz.”
After being in college for two years, Dubowe went back to Israel, spending five months on her cousin’s moshav — a cooperative agricultural settlement. When she returned, she knew she wanted to be a Jewish professional.
“My options were to be a cantor, which I probably shouldn’t be — can’t be; be an educator, which I really thought about but wasn’t really interested in the idea of being in the classroom all day; and maybe social work, which I love to do,” Dubowe said. “The rabbinate included all of that — social work, being a counselor, being a part of people’s lives, and being a teacher in the classroom and outside of the classroom.”
With a bachelor’s degree in Jewish studies from the then-University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), she went on to attend rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).
“After interviewing at a Conservative school and HUC, I felt like HUC was ready for me. I didn’t think the Conservative movement was keen on having someone with a disability,” Dubowe said.
The journey was not without complications. As an undergraduate, she had always had an interpreter in class. However, her first year at HUC-JIR was in Israel, and finding a local interpreter who was fluent in ASL was nearly impossible. She had to do her best with a combination of lip reading, hearing aids and notes from multiple classmates.
Rabbi David Ellenson, one of Dubowe’s former professors and HUC-JIR’s current president, knew she was an especially gifted student.
“From the very outset, she was effervescent, empathic, intelligent, and committed to Jewish life and learning,” he said. “Her career has been a model of success, and she has brought deep Jewish sensitivity to issues of identity and inclusion.”
Dubowe faced another hurdle once she was ordained. Would anyone hire her? Of the 17 open positions she applied for, she was offered two jobs. Ultimately, she accepted a position as an assistant rabbi in a synagogue in New Jersey. Four years later, she was back in the Los Angeles area at Temple Adat Elohim.
Dubowe said her hearing loss hardly gets in the way of her job as a rabbi.
“There is a rare moment that I may not understand the person speaking. However, if necessary, I would ask them to write it down or repeat what they said, but it has not really been a problem,” she said.
Aliza Goland, the synagogue’s executive director, said Dubowe’s greatest strength is sort of an ironic one.
“She is a good listener,” she said. “She anticipates congregants’ needs and is ready and able to consistently exceed their expectations. She listens with kindness and empathy and is genuinely interested in people’s stories.”
And she’s made her congregation a more inclusive place in the process.
“She has brought a heightened awareness and sensitivity about all kinds of disabilities to our community,” Goland said.
Dubowe improved her hearing three years ago when she received a cochlear implant — a year after her husband, Michael, who also has profound hearing loss, had the same procedure performed. (Still, she needs to face a person to understand what they are saying.) Her two daughters also are hard of hearing, though the family mostly communicates with each other via spoken English, with occasional signing.
While she leads a hearing congregation, Dubowe is involved with the Jewish deaf community. As an undergraduate, Dubowe taught Sunday school at Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf, the San Fernando Valley shul that calls itself the world’s first congregation for the deaf.
She works with the Washington Society of Jewish Deaf as well, and while attending an American Jewish Congress conference on its behalf, she led Shabbat morning services.
“At my service, we had a PowerPoint so we didn’t have to hold on to a book. Rather, we could use our hands and sign prayers,” she said.
Dubowe also led an ASL Birthright trip and is actively involved with Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., which specializes in educating students who are deaf and hard of hearing.
But Dubowe’s favorite part of her job would be the same even if she could hear.
“The best part about being a rabbi is being part of people’s lives,” she said. “Being there for moments of sadness and moments of joy — watching a child grow. I feel like it’s a privilege and honor to be a part of the life cycle, of the journey — being face to face with people and creating relationships.”
As she’s known all along, you don’t need to hear to do that. You just need to listen.