IM this article to a friend!

August 31, 2003

Deaf woman's rare path to rabbi

From: Chicago Sun Times, IL - Aug 31, 2003


Some day, when Ellen Roth tells the story of how she became a rabbi, it might go something like this:

On Sept. 11, 2001, Roth was standing on a sidewalk in New York City about five blocks from the World Trade Center with her French toy poodle, Hurray, and her sister, Jacqueline.

Roth was looking at her dog when the first of the twin towers collapsed. All around, people were screaming as chaos erupted.

She didn't hear any of it.

"The police told my sister, 'Get out of here! Why are you standing there?!'" Roth recalled during a recent conversation in the library of Skokie's Congregation Bene Shalom synagogue.

"The police were asking my sister why I wasn't paying any attention. And she said, because I was deaf. The police said, 'No, she's crazy!' My sister's like, 'No, she's actually deaf,'" Roth said. "So I looked around, and my sister said, 'We need to get out of here now!' And we watched the second building collapse and go into nothingness. . . . I had only turned away for a few minutes."

Those horrible moments, and the following 11 days she spent in her native New York City two years ago, were transforming.

"I felt awful. I couldn't hear anything that was going on. We couldn't really process emotions for other people. I would have to rely on my sister to understand what other people were saying; she got tired of interpreting for me. She had her own stuff. And my mother died three weeks later," Roth said.

Deaf since she was 1 year old, Roth, who is in her 40s and lives in Chicago's Lake View neighborhood, decided it was time to hear. In October 2002, she received a cochlear implant, a tiny artificial hearing device implanted in her skull just above her left ear that produces hearing sensations by electrically stimulating nerves inside the inner ear.

While she's still learning how to speak, Roth can now hear sounds and voices. The first music she ever heard was a song she can't remember the name of by Norah Jones, but the second song was Sade's "No Ordinary Love."

"I remember crying," she said. "I realized that music can go directly to your heart. I'd never known that."

A longtime advocate and activist in the deaf community, Roth eventually left her job as a senior public service administrator for the City of Chicago's Office of Rehabilitation Services, a position she'd held for a decade. It was time, she decided, for a change, time to do what she calls her "soul's work."

A month before she received her cochlear implant--and her hearing--Roth began rabbinical studies at the Hebrew Seminary of the Deaf in Skokie, where her new-found hearing has come in handy as she has tackled the yeoman task of learning Hebrew. It'll be her fifth language, after English, American Sign Language, French and French Sign Language.

At the end of her five-year course of study at the Skokie seminary, Roth will be a rabbi--only the third deaf rabbi in the world, according to her seminary mentor, Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer.

But Roth doesn't intend to serve a traditional congregation, either hearing or deaf. Instead, she wants to become a Kabbalistic teacher and healer.

The focus of her rabbinical studies with Goldhamer is the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition assembled in a number of books, all written in Hebrew, collected throughout the ages. Kabbalist mystics believe the remedies to all of life's difficulties--including physical maladies--can be found in the texts.

The Kabbalah, which literally means "to receive," teaches that the body and mind can become a vessel for messages and energy that can be healing for the recipient and others, Roth explained. She was introduced to the Kabbalah years ago and has studied it informally on her own for about a decade.

"To still your mind so that you can receive the message, that's what the Kabbalah is, though not a lot of us know how to do that," she said. "I don't know what real work I'm going to do, but, you know, I'm pulled here. I haven't figured out what I'm going to do with it, but I'm staying."

Only about 5 percent of all Kabbalistic literature has been translated into English, hence Roth's Hebrew lessons. And fewer than 1 percent of all rabbinical students study the Kabbalah classically, according to Goldhamer.

If she completes her studies, Roth will be the only deaf woman Kabbalist in the world. Traditionally, the Kabbalah has been shrouded in secrecy, studied almost exclusively by an elite cadre of male rabbis.

"The contribution she'll be making to Judaism is enormous," said Goldhamer, who established the seminary for the deaf in 1992. There are about 50,000 deaf Jews in the United States. "The deaf are thirsty for knowledge of Judaism and spirituality. . . . The deaf are thirsty because there are no deaf educators in [Jewish] religious fields. They just don't exist."

Roth's life is dramatically different today than it was on that street corner in lower Manhattan two years ago. Even taking Hurray for his daily walk is a portal to a new world.

"I would walk the dog, and I'd see people who could hear, and they'd walk past. Their faces always looked odd to me; people didn't look friendly. Then I got my cochlear implant and moved to Lake View, and I'd walk my dog in the morning, and I'd hear people talking. And people would say, 'Good morning,'" she said.

"I didn't realize that in the past, people might have been trying to talk to me, too, but I just ignored them because I couldn't hear them. And then they decided I wasn't friendly. So we had negative perceptions of each other for no reason. Now that's solved. That's gone. And that blows my mind."

Copyright © The Sun-Times Company