Two days ago (1/24/2020), Jennifer L. Gravitz passed away after a long battle with cancer. Gravitz is survived by her wife and partner of 25 years, Donna Butler Lemcke, their children, and grandchildren. Gravitz donned many hats over the years: she was a Rabbi, a lawyer, an interpreter, an educator, an academic advisor, and she devoted herself to the Deaf, Jew, and queer communities. In reflection of their memories with Gravitz, many people have shared how they were blessed to have known her on a personal level.
Gravitz worked for 20 years with the Department of Criminal Justice at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) as a professor and was revered for her sincere care of her students and the tendency to push them to do and be their best. As skilled as Gravitz was in teaching numerous criminal justice courses, she was particularly known for her specialty in computer crime. More recently Gravitz was the Chairperson for the Department of Liberal Studies at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID).
Fooled by her prowess in ASL, many Deaf students could never figure out whether Gravitz was hearing or Deaf, but those who were closest to her knew. Gravitz worked tirelessly to provide access to what she did in ASL–one instance is the Birthright Israel program, where she would bring NTID/RIT students with her every year to Israel.
Gravitz officiated countless weddings for the Deaf community and conducted synagogue services in ASL. A Hillel Chaplin herself, Gravitz explained in a 2008 article that often Birthright Israel staff are challenged in accommodating Deaf Jews because most of them have received little to no formal Jewish education due to exclusion. “In most shuls (synagogues) and educational settings, there isn’t anyone qualified to interpret, period, and the result is very large gaps in knowledge and understanding,” Gravitz said.
We know that the Deaf community is already small as is in terms of the population count. The Deaf queer community is smaller than the general Deaf community, and the same is true for the Deaf Jew community. The community of Deaf Jews who also identify as queer is even smaller, so Gravitz’s passing is felt all the more deeply. Gravitz had a profound impact on individuals who were struggling with their identity–sometimes as a queer person, sometimes as a Jew, and sometimes as both. Some tributes of Gravitz detail how she never hesitated to be there for others at their worst times, spending hours with them to discuss Judaism and their communities. Gravitz will be missed by many, and the legacy of her contributions will be felt for generations to come.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on The Deaf Report under the same author. This article has been placed on Deaf Vee Journal for archiving purposes.