Jewish Journal


November 28, 2002

Listening to Needs

Jewish deaf seek understanding, inclusion.


Day school students and Temple Beth Solomon members sign "I love you" during a meeting at Sinai Akiba Academy.

Day school students and Temple Beth Solomon members sign "I love you" during a meeting at Sinai Akiba Academy.

When kids from Sinai Temple celebrate Chanukah with the members of Temple Beth Solomon (TBS) in Tarzana on Friday night, Dec. 6, they'll notice that the service is slower and streamlined, but that the singing is performed with every bit as much gusto as a "Friday Night Live" service. And the kids themselves will be able to join in, having learned how to sign the "Shema" when TBS members paid a visit to Sinai.

Building bridges between the deaf and hearing communities is the goal of programs like those of TBS and the group Our Way, which is aimed at observant Jews. More than ever in history, deaf Jews are looking to connect with their heritage and trying to overcome the frustration of a hearing Jewish community that, while well-meaning, still doesn't seem to "get it."

For example, a number of people -- like the producers of the "Hallelu" concert held Oct. 20 at the Universal Amphitheatre -- are attempting to make their programs more accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing by providing interpreters. While the deaf community appreciates the gesture, TBS administrator Jan Seely believes it misses the point.

"You could have someone sign the music but it's not the same experience," she said. "There is something in the music you will never get through an interpreter. You'll get lyrics, you might get rhythm, but you're not getting the essence." Not only that, but as TBS lay leader Roz Robinson points out, there is a large constituency of older Jews who missed out on having a Jewish education because they attended residential schools for the deaf. As a result, they lack the basics that most rabbis and teachers take for granted when giving a lecture and are unable to appreciate what is being signed to them in temple services and sermons.

"If the material of the sermon is over their heads and nothing they can relate to, the deaf would be lost even with an interpreter, because an interpreter doesn't explain anything," Robinson said. "The interpreter only translates what is being said into sign language. The Hebrew portion of any service is also a problem. Most interpreters will only sign, 'speaking Hebrew.'"

In general, there are numerous problems for the Jewish deaf, which probably never occur to those who can hear. If you are trying to follow an interpreter and your attention wanders, you may not be able to find your place again in the service. And what if the lighting is poor or there are other visual obstructions? At one Orthodox service that hosted deaf visitors, the mechitza made it almost impossible to follow the service when seated in the women's section.

Even participating in Jewish communal and social activities presents a challenge.

Robinson, the only deaf person in her family of four, expressed frustration with the fact that she has never been able to fully participate in the sisterhoods at either of the hearing shuls her family joined. Although she is a very animated talker and speaks clearly enough to be easily understood, Robinson said the few times she attended Jewish communal events she never spoke up, fearing that by the time she jumped into the conversation the others would have already moved on to another topic -- and she would be left looking and feeling foolish.

"Large group discussions are impossible for deaf people to follow and participate in, even with an interpreter, because people talk in random order and because the deaf are always one step behind whatever is happening," she said.

"I can't really see any temple providing full access for the deaf except for our temple, because it is designed by and for deaf people," Robinson said. "We understand all the pitfalls and can meet individual needs in our small group." However, TBS is affiliated with the Reform movement. For more observant Jews, Our Way may provide a more fitting alternative, helping its members integrate into hearing Orthodox congregations.

Our Way is a New York-based national organization run by Rabbi Eliezer Lederfeind, the hearing son of two deaf parents who has two deaf daughters among his six children.

When Lederfeind became observant as an adult, he noticed "there were certainly clubs for the Jewish deaf but it was not the same as having a real level of observance and commitment."

He began working with deaf Jewish teenagers and gradually expanded the program to include family Shabbatons, programs teaching Torah via e-mail and a sports program for deaf children with separate gyms for boys and girls. The organization even has a matchmaking service, the Jewish Deaf Singles Registry (www.jdsr.org).

Lori Moore, a North Hollywood mother of two boys and a teenage girl, leads the Our Way chapter in California. Her sons, Jason, 20, and Andrew, 12, are both deaf. She said the family's involvement with Our Way has helped her children to integrate better into their community. She recently helped plan a Shabbaton hosted at Shaarey Zedek that drew participants from across the country. "The Shabbaton was a good eye-opener," she said. "People could see how the deaf are really excluded from the community. Even when we want rabbis to come speak to the Our Way group, they are apprehensive. I really wish, with all the money the shuls raise, that they would give some to Our Way to help people stay in touch with their Judaism."

Jason Moore, reached in New York, said there have been difficulties ("In middle school, I wasn't exactly welcomed among my peers"), he wrote in an e-mail, but that there have been certain advantages to having a hearing loss, including the strength of the deaf community.

"It's amazing how much the deaf look after their own," he said. "Also, I can shut off my hearing aids when conversations start to annoy me."

His challenges as a religious Jew who is also deaf are more complex. They include issues like not being able to hear the shofar being blown and questions from others about whether he is "able to be Yoseh under someone else's bracha" -- in other words, whether halachically he is able to perform a mitzvah on behalf of other people, like reading the Megillah, if he cannot hear it and therefore cannot fulfill the mitzvah for himself.

Still, while some deaf Jews remark that they would characterize themselves as deaf first and Jewish second, Jason Moore disagrees.

"I am a Jew; deafness is secondary," he said. "Deafness only applies in this olam hazeh [this world] whereas being Jewish applies in this world and the next."

"Being a religious Jew overtakes any 'defect' a person might have, because whatever your defect, you are always Jewish," Moore said.

The Moore family and Robinson, while on very different ends of the religious spectrum, do agree on one thing: hearing and deaf communities should continue to strive for greater inclusion, on both sides.

"TBS is open to all," Robinson said. "Our services are completely voiced in addition to signed, so that anyone can follow along with us."

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