THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – As she has for the past 16 years, Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe lights the candles and recites the L’Kah Dodi during recent Friday night Shabbat services at Temple Adat Elohim. The prayer means “Come, my beloved” in Hebrew, a welcoming expression of joy for this holy moment.
With her thick cascade of auburn curls, bright hazel-blue eyes and crimson lipstick, Dubowe speaks with only the slightest impediment and has a natural, warm, charismatic poise.
“We were made to hear by the unified God,” Dubowe begins, dusk descending beyond the stained-glass windows. “Your light is coming, rise up and shine.”
Soon 35 second-graders from the temple’s Hebrew school join the 50-year-old Reform rabbi on the pulpit. They line up in two long rows facing the congregation as Dubowe sings the Shema, one of Judaism’s most important prayers.
“Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”
Thirty-five pairs of tiny hands and arms sign along to the words, right arms folded with outstretched fingers behind right ears for “hear,” or “listen.”
Then it dawns on you.
This rabbi cannot hear.
Rebecca Lee Dubowe is believed to be the first ordained deaf female rabbi in the world. Except for herself and her family – husband Michael and daughters Rachel and Arielle – there is only one other hard-of-hearing person in Temple Adat Elohim’s congregation of about 600 families. Raised in a hearing environment, Dubowe reads lips, speaks and occasionally uses American Sign Language (ASL). Three years ago, she had a cochlear implant, which she compares to getting a new pair of glasses “and suddenly being able to see.”
“My first language is English, my second is Hebrew, and my third is ASL,” she said. “They’re all equally beautiful and expressive.”
But in deaf culture, signing is the overwhelming language of choice. At Washington’s Gallaudet University for hearing-impaired students, where Dubowe recently spent two weeks as a visiting scholar, she and her oral upbringing stand out.
“Signing is more than just a language,” said Robert Weinstock, special assistant to the Gallaudet provost, who has known Dubowe for years.
“Sign language is your identity as a deaf person,” Weinstock said, exemplifying his and the school’s position. “When my wife and I met Rebecca’s daughters, we were kind of flummoxed that they didn’t sign.” (“I’m not surprised to hear why Bob doesn’t understand our decision as parents to not teach sign language to our girls,” Dubowe said.)
Aside from that, Weinstock is smitten. “Rebecca is very modern,” he said. “Open-minded, assertive, friendly and accepting of different levels of the community. She communicates and connects seamlessly with deaf and hearing people, can jump back and forth through both groups and is accepted by both, which is great.
“The other thing I like about her is that she’s Rebecca first and rabbi second. She doesn’t have that halo above her head at all times.”
Weinstock said he’d love to have Dubowe back for a longer time.”But I doubt she’ll come,” he said, “because she’s such a California girl.”
West Los Angeles is where this California girl was born and bred. Father Josef and mother Jo Ann Lesser were multimedia producers, creating slide programs for businesses. They’re kosher-keeping Reform Jews who taught Sunday school at their temple. Brother Michael is 18 months Rebecca’s junior. All of them are hearing.
When she was a baby, Rebecca’s grandmother gave her a music box that played “Good Night, Irene.”
“Rebecca didn’t respond to the music,” Josef said. “That was our first clue.”
At 22 months, the toddler was diagnosed with significant hearing loss and began wearing hearing aids.
“My parents cried a little bit, and then they got busy,” Dubowe said. “They treated me like any other child. I did everything a child has the right to do. They took me to school, to the philharmonic, to the library.”
Enrolled at L.A.’s John Tracy Clinic, she flourished. The diagnostic and education center supports and guides parents of hearing-impaired kids to teach and learn speaking and lip-reading.
At home, Jo Ann prepared lessons every day. Language, lip-reading, listening, auditory training, speech. “I also taught her every instrument of the orchestra and she would hear the difference,” Jo Ann said.
How could Rebecca hear?
“Don’t ask me, she just could. The drum, the bass, the violin, the oboe … she felt the sounds of the orchestra.”
For Josef and Jo Ann, deafness was a minor part of who Rebecca was.
“It didn’t make any difference to me,” Jo Ann said. “I expected her to do her dream, whatever her vision might be. I told her she could do anything except become an opera singer.”
Rebecca grew up too early to benefit from the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. Her local public elementary school wouldn’t take her. Neither would the next school over. She was finally accepted at an integrated, mainstream school, where Jo Ann volunteers as a tutor to this day.
“I knew it was obvious that this was where Rebecca belonged,” Jo Ann said. “But the law didn’t say that.”
In third grade, Rebecca transferred to Sinai Akiba Academy. “Those four years were intrinsic to learning about my Judaism and building that foundation,” Dubowe said.
She ultimately graduated from a Los Angeles public high school.
“The most important people during that time were my mother and father,” Dubowe said. “To this day, they are my advocates.”
Academically and socially, there were roadblocks. Teachers with beards or mustaches, or those who didn’t maintain eye contact, made it hard to read lips. (In those instances, Dubowe gave classmates carbon paper so she had copies of their written notes.) She had to fight the high school principal to let her take honors classes.
“It might be more of a challenge for those with special needs, but me, I’m physically fine,” Dubowe said. “I don’t feel I’m broken.”
The idea of becoming a rabbi grew naturally out of the Lessers’ close-knit Jewish home life. That, and Dubowe’s first trip to Israel at 17, where a Hungarian-born aunt, a Holocaust survivor, took Rebecca under her wing and spoke to her only in Hebrew.
“I felt very connected to her,” Dubowe said. “The stories of her life inspired and humbled me.”
Back in the States, Dubowe enrolled at California State University in Northridge when she was 18. On her first day, a sophomore named Michael Dubowe noticed her in the campus bookstore, where she was looking for a textbook.
“I asked if she needed help, and the rest is history,” said Michael, a Los Angeles graphic designer who’s also a Reform Jew and was born profoundly deaf. Like Rebecca, he speaks and lip-reads.
“We ran into each other again maybe a week later, and she asked me on a date,” he said. “I think she knew she’d found the right guy.” They spent hours talking about their lives, childhoods, interests – and clicked. They learned sign language together at college.
“We have a wonderful relationship,” Michael said. “Rebecca’s flexible, understanding, compassionate. ... I’m very supportive because I’m personally in awe of her.” In August they celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary.
Two years into CSUN, Dubowe transferred to the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Jewish studies, then enrolled at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the nation’s main Reform rabbinical school. (The seminary provided interpreters for all of Dubowe’s classes, which came in handy with heavily bearded professors.)
After graduating, she applied to 17 different hearing congregations for a job.
“Rebecca knocked my socks off,” said Senior Rabbi Bennett Miller of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, N.J. “She has a real commitment to Jewish life and is exciting to be with. She has enormous drive and a captivating way with people. You can’t say no to her.”
While the domed sanctuary acoustics made it hard for Dubowe to be heard distinctly, Miller says the congregation was patient, supportive and encouraging.
“I learned a lot at Anshe Emeth,” Dubowe said. “But after four years I just couldn’t stand the snow and the ice.”
In 1997 Dubowe saw an opening for an assistant rabbi at Adat Elohim in her native California and contacted its then-senior rabbi, Alan Greenbaum.
“I knew right away that she was the one,” said Greenbaum, now the temple’s rabbi emeritus. “She was perfect.”
His was partly an emotional connection: Greenbaum’s late older sister, Gail, was deaf. But that’s not a good reason to hire somebody. He flew to New Jersey for a weekend to observe Dubowe leading an interfaith program at her congregation.
He was wowed.
“She was there to function 100 percent in every capacity side-by-side,” Greenbaum said. “She fulfilled and continues to fulfill that mission 150 percent.”
The most powerful metaphor of what it’s like to work with Dubowe, said interim rabbi Barry Diamond, is that “you have to face her, literally and figuratively. Rebecca asks that people are honest with her and in that sense they have to face her as well.”
“Of course it’s tough being a rabbi’s kid,” said Rachel, 23, a recent graduate of the University of California at Davis with a bachelor of science degree in human development. Like her sister, Arielle, Rachel is hard of hearing and wears hearing aids. She has the most hearing in her family.
Raised to speak and read lips like her parents, Rachel remains flustered with signing because she talks so fast. Growing up, the only time it was hard to talk to her mother was at the supermarket.
“She’d be by the bananas and I’d be by the cereals,” Rachel recalls. “I couldn’t just yell out, ‘Hey, Mom! Can we get Cap’n Crunch?’ ”
“My family’s loud, weird and full of love,” said Arielle, 19, a first-year student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other, Arielle prefers using email for an interview.
“I don’t want people to focus on us because we’re deaf,” she said. But Arielle, who also took sign language classes in high school, can’t deny the lessons she’s learned from that aspect of her life.
“It’s a unique experience that’s taught me to speak up for myself and just love myself,” she said. “If I don’t love myself, then how can I change the world and speak up for those who can’t?”