AMAZING GRACE: She is African American, hearing impaired, and a senior citizen. Tirtzah Israel’s path from her Baptist church upbringing to becoming an ordained Chicago rabbi

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Fresh from her rabbinical ordination, Rabbi Tirtzah Israel wants to teach healing, dividing her time between a brick-and-mortar base at a synagogue and out in the field.

“Healing occurs when one is interested in coming home to himself, to do tikkun and teshuva,” Israel said. “I am interested in teaching it in any format that I need to, wherever I find an audience interested in learning. I’ll do it one-on-one or before a group.

“Working at a synagogue part-time gives me flexibility to do it free-lance. I have made presentations on what kabbalah is and what meditation is, at synagogues and community centers.”

The personable, thoughtful Israel might have an advantage over similar practitioners of Jewish philosophy. She can use her style to bring an audience of one or many in to hear the substance she’s analyzing. After all, she’s a neophyte rabbi the likes of which most Jews have never seen.

Israel started out life on the West Side as Diane Richardson, an African-American Baptist. But from an early age, she’s been seeking deeper meanings about G-d and life. Amid the detours of marriage and family, and earning a living, she never forgot that original quest. As an empty nester, she pursued it full-bore at Skokie’s Hebrew Seminary: A Rabbinical School for Deaf and Hearing.

Israel is a full-fledged senior citizen. And she attended the seminary, established in 1993 to provide rabbis to some of the 55,000 deaf Jews who are hearing-impaired, to best serve her needs. Israel is impaired to varying degrees in both ears, but hears a visitor loud and clear in a quiet room with devices not visible to the naked eye.

So her skin color, age and disability are simply conversation-starters for potential students to embrace the inner selves of everyone in the room. Most do not expect an African-American to be Jewish, let alone a rabbi.

“I certainly hope that it does help,” Israel said. “It’s a distinction, I’ll take that. I’ve always been African American! I embrace my maturity. I can use it all to my advantage.

“I believe that we were all at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. If you were at Mt. Sinai, chances are you were ‘suntanned.’ This was on the continent of Africa – hello! To me, I’m returning to where I belong, anyway. The Torah is open to all who want to study, via the language it says and the spirituality it conveys.”

Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer knows he blessed a special student on her big ordination day of Oct. 29.

“She has maintained her distinctiveness,” said Goldhamer. “We’ve had African-Americans as students here before. But nobody has had her class, honesty and ability to maintain this distinctiveness. She kept her word and inspired the students in her classroom, not only to remain as a student, but advancing.

“She’s bright, she’s honest, she’s sincere. She’s good at her work and she’s committed to her work.”

Israel practiced her one-on-one style on Goldhamer and fellow students. Student-to-teacher ratio is, well, cozy. Hebrew Seminary presently has 10 students, two of whom are working on their thesis. She took 6 ½ years to complete her studies.

The seminary does not have a typical annual ordination. Most of the students work and take classes part-time. They seek to become rabbis as a second career.

Hebrew Seminary graduated one totally deaf rabbi, Ellen Roth, in 2010. Until the seminary opened, no organized effort to train rabbis to communicate with the deaf had ever been undertaken. The deaf and hearing-impaired community was deemed underserved.

To graduate, students must become proficient in American Sign Language (ASL). The seminary  is the only one in the Chicago area that welcomes students of both genders as well as part-time students.

While offering non-degree programs, the seminary integrates kabbalah and spiritual healing — including meditative practices — as well as Talmud. Also incorporated are Jewish ethics, history and deaf culture.

Goldhamer might as well offer a lecture series by Israel on her own self-described “lifelong journey.” She covered a lot of ground spiritually before she entered high school.

Growing up in Pilsen, by Ogden and Talman avenues, one neighborhood over from the old Jewish West Side, Israel wondered “where did I come from? How did I get here? Why did I see the world the way I was seeing the world?”

Mother Lucille Blackwell Richardson, a community leader, taught the concept of “accountability…that G-d was always watching,” her daughter said. “Mind your behavior. You’re not alone. You are accountable not only to yourself, but also to a higher power.

“I was always inquisitive, where is this higher power? They said heaven. I’d look up and see the blue sky.”

The Soviets launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, in Oct. 1957. The young Diane Richardson watched the urgent TV news bulletins and the primitive graphics showing the beeping sphere moving across a black background of space.

“That scared me,” Israel said. “It was dark. Even with a black and white TV, you could tell the difference between daytime and nighttime. I was concerned about G-d. I thought G-d was in the dark. I wondered whether Sputnik would bump into G-d.

“From that point on, I was on a quest to find G-d. Fortunately, my mother instructed me to read the family Bible. It had all the illustrations of the cherubs. Fortunately, our version had both the Old Testament and New Testament.”

Israel got as far as Isiah and the trademark statement, “I am the alpha and the omega.” She had her revelation.

“That stood out,” she said. “I can still see those words in my head to this day. I said I wanted to be that group that honored G-d in such a way. Nothing comes before G-d and nothing comes after G-d. I’m going to search for that G-d. And the people. I didn’t know there was a people, but I knew there was Israel. G-d was talking with Israel and concerned with people and honoring the law.

“I wanted to know what those laws were.  I wanted to understand that I wanted to connect. It was something internal. I wanted to be among these people called Israel. G-d was very concerned about these people. And I was concerned about G-d.”

Israel learned even more, not from any Jewish text, but from Henry Blackwell, her great uncle. Blackwell was spiritual leader of Antioch Baptist Church, which her family attended, in southwest suburban Argo.

“He was always sitting at a table reading the Bible and always willing to teach moral conduct, the principles of being accountable for yourself,” Israel said. “Where is your integrity? I was surrounded by this moral compass. You worked every day. Your family came home and ate dinner together. It was expected of you if you wanted to be in the good graces of G-d.”

Entering her teen-age years, Israel studied as many religions as possible – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Taoism. She zipped up to the Baha’i Temple in Wilmette to study with their teachers.

“What I liked about Buddhism and Taoism was the meditation aspect. I was attracted by it,” she said.

She also was attracted to Jewish meditation through the works of Aryeh Kaplan. His meditations and focus on introspection resonated with her.

“I knew I found what I was looking for,” she said. “I knew I was at a beginning point and knew nothing about it. I tried to take a number of classes, like transcendental meditation. But I was not always satisfied with either the teaching or the methodology because I found they were more interested in teaching the text as opposed to teaching the practice. That component was missing, and did not transfer over to me in the way I expected it to transfer to me.”

The pace of Israel’s enrichment slowed down by necessity. She married her childhood sweetheart and had two daughters. Early on, she was involved in the black consciousness movement, serving food to the seniors and the poor on the West Side.

Education at the University of Illinois and a master’s in administration at the Spertus Institute led her to teaching for more than 20 years at Chicago State University, as well as to community work in which Israel attempted to empower the marginalized. “I was strong enough to fight for them,” she said.

By now long divorced and with youngest daughter Tami out of the house, Israel remembered her Old Testament teachings. She gravitated to the nearest synagogue, Lawn Manor Beth Jacob Congregation, at Kedzie and 66th Street, in the center of a small, but long-established Jewish community amid the longtime sprawling Irish and Eastern European ethnic neighborhoods of the Southwest Side.

She said Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took refuge in the building amid his conflict-ridden open-housing marches in Marquette Park in the summer of 1966. King was felled, but uninjured, by a rock thrown at his head in the march.

Decades later, Israel began praying at the synagogue. But the interest was two-way.

“Rabbi Ephraim Prombaum came to my house and taught me what it meant to be a Jew,” Israel said. “I had been a (religious) free agent. This locked me into Judaism.

“I’ve always been on this path. Then I ran into a student-rabbi attending the seminary. She and I shared hearing impairments. Mine is profound in my right ear, and moderate in my left ear. I figure I wasn’t deaf. I appreciate that. I wear glasses, but I’m not blind. I appreciate that. You take what you got and you run with it. I understand (other hearing-impaired people). I know the struggle.

“She was very excited about this seminary that taught American Sign Language. We discussed it and discussed becoming a rabbi.”

Tirtzah recognized that she needed a teacher, “a person who could help me achieve what I secretly longed for; a true understanding about healing and balance as a divine connection.” She found one in Goldhamer and his faculty of scholars.

“Everything shines in her,” Goldhamer said. “People like her who have this burning desire to meet and hear and speak with G-d usually begin at 6 or 7. She asked questions and was seeking G-d, to the extent where she used all her education to use the healing the physical and spiritual and mental to help people who were suffering. She put herself right on the line. She said to others, let me help you and continues to do it, to heal through holy text.”

Goldhamer feels he has helped groom a rabbinical star, even though she is breaking into its majors at a late age.

Joining Goldhamer in his cramped study, Israel was able to define the message she intends to focus on bringing to others:

“To do justice and to love kindness and walk humbly with Hashem.”

She won’t have as many decades as other rabbis to practice what she preaches. But she knows the clock is running, and has a specific game plan to give back to her adopted people.

“I refer to the G-d that dwells, and has always dwelled, within each of us,” she said. “I do not want to leave this world of existence without having made an attempt towards restoring tikkun and teshuva for a people whose ancestors had been so brutally violated, stripped of their humanity, yet struggled to survive to this very day.”

Israel returns to her mother, to Lucille Blackwell Richardson, and the roots of her continuing journey.

“Be honest and honor your integrity,” she said. “Don’t allow anyone else to determine who you are. Be the best you can be.”

Information about upcoming seminary classes can be found at To make arrangements to visit the seminary, contact Alison Brown at 847/679-4113.

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