- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 22, 2015

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. - When Moses Montefiore Temple in Bloomington was in need of some guidance, Rabbi Rebecca L. Dubowe traveled from Los Angeles to help.

She is believed to be the first deaf, female rabbi to be ordained in the world, but she is not defined by that title. Her colleagues say her passion for Judaism and her connection with others is what makes her a strong leader in the temple.

“She has extraordinary skill in relating to members of the congregation and she’s very good at extemporaneous speech,” said Judi Sevel, president of MMT. “She’s fluent in her ability to read lips and interact with people. It must be exhausting, but she doesn’t show it.”

Dubowe speaks English and Hebrew and can communicate through American Sign Language. Sevel said there is no difference between Dubowe’s sermons and those of a hearing rabbi.

Dubowe says her deafness does not create obstacles.

“I recognize the fact that I have different abilities, rather than a disability,” she said. “My ears may be broken, but not my ability to communicate and live like others.”

Dubowe grew up in an active and traditional Jewish home. She received a bachelor’s degree in Jewish studies from the University of Judaism and attended seminary at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

“I wanted to teach and share my passion and love for Judaism with others,” she said.

During college and seminary, the schools were accommodating to Dubowe, providing a sign language interpreter in her classes. While she did face challenges in school, Dubowe said she learned to speak up for herself and utilize her gifts.

“Deafness has caused many blessings for me, but the most important is that it helped me understand the fact that no one is perfect and I have wholeheartedly accepted that about myself,” said Dubowe.

She says when others see how she has embraced her gifts, they are usually inspired to do the same.

“She is a person who understands relationships. She is direct, but not overbearing. She’s instructive without being judgmental,” said Sevel. “She has great people skills, but I don’t want to minimize her skills as a learned rabbi. She truly embraces the teachings of Judaism.”

For more than 18 years, Dubowe served a congregation of 600 families at Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks, Calif. The temple of 100 families is a new experience for her.

“In a smaller congregation, everybody steps up to help and make sure everything is running smoothly,” she said. “They are also present with others during times of joy and sorrow. Sometimes that can be more of a challenge in a much larger congregation.”

Dubowe joined MMT as interim rabbi in June. She will stay at the temple for two years, aiding in the search for a permanent rabbi as well as helping the congregation strengthen its connection with the community.

“The ultimate goal is to allow the congregation to continue to grow as the vibrant center of the Jewish community of Bloomington,” said Dubowe.

Dubowe preached her first sermon Aug. 7. She is meeting new congregants daily.

“They have so much to share, especially stories and special traditions that only happen at MMT. There is still much for me to learn since this congregation has been around for 130 years,” she said. “That is quite remarkable.”

Affiliated with the Union of Reform Judaism, MMT was established in 1882 in Bloomington. The temple welcomes Jews from all backgrounds, including singles, young families, empty nesters and interfaith families.

“Our plans to connect to the Jewish community include installing more programs relevant to groups of all ages, specifically young families, college students and retired folks,” said Sevel. “We’d like to attract more Jewish students from Illinois Wesleyan University and Illinois State University through the campus ministry group, Hillel.”

One way Dubowe hopes to create a fresh start for the congregation is through the Jewish High Holy Days. Sunday was Rosh Hashanah, which began the Jewish new year.

“This year’s High Holy Days will be a wonderful experience for our congregation because we are starting a new chapter of renewal and growth among each other and for the community as a whole,” she said.

Sevel hopes that by the end of the two years with the rabbi, the congregation will have a much better sense of who they are as a group and where they want to go.

For those with questions about the Jewish faith or about upcoming programs, Sevel said Dubowe’s office door is always open.

“It is challenging, being a small Jewish community,” said Dubowe. “But we have a presence and we’re proud. We hope to maintain that spirituality in the Jewish community and educate others about differences and diversity.”

Source: The (Bloomington) Pantagraph

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