Esther has been dreaming about Jake for four years. So when he finally asked her out, she did not hesitate to say yes. It no longer mattered that he lived in Miami and did not lead an Orthodox Jewish life. Though she hated to think of leaving New York City and wanted to make sure that their future children would receive a Jewish education, "we were going to try to work it out," she says. "It's really hard to find someone Jewish, so if you don't try, then what?"
Esther, 31, is deaf. Jake, 35, is hard of hearing. Though both can speak, they prefer to communicate in sign language, which according to Esther "is a more romantic way to express yourself."
They have been dating for 10 months and credit their meeting to the Jewish Deaf Singles Registry (JDSR). A project of Our Way, a division for the deaf and hard of hearing at the Orthodox Union-sponsored National Jewish Council for the Disabled, the JDSR might very well be the leading warrior in the fight against intermarriage within the Jewish deaf singles community. Coordinated by Sam and Rachelle Landau, a deaf married couple, the JDSR offers a newsletter three times a year, pizza parties, retreats and matchmaking services. It has led to several marriages and many meetings and has created a sense of community for a group of people who often feel isolated from mainstream Jewish life.
The JDSR "is very unique," says Rabbi Eliezer Lederfeind, the national director of Our Way/NJCD. "It's for the observant and nonobservant; people come from different countries. The bottom line is that they're all Jewish."
According to Lederfeind, there are approximately 10,000 Jewish deaf people living in America. About 80 to 90 percent of deaf people marry other deaf people. For the Jewish deaf, "that means there's a very limited amount of people that they can marry," he says. "With JDSR, we show them that we care."
For Jewish deaf singles, "intermarriage is a very big problem," says Leah Weinstock, a board member of the JDSR. "There are other clubs for the deaf but they're not necessarily for singles, or they're for non-Jews. JDSR helps minimize conflict for Jewish [deaf] people who are looking to meet."
Weinstock observes that when you're single, Jewish and deaf, "you're more willing to work things out" with someone. "I knew this couple, she was Orthodox, he was Reform... they worked it out. They've been married for six years and have three kids."
Because the JDSR events and its newsletter full of personal ads attract people from all over North America, Israel and Europe, long-distance relationships tend to proliferate. At a recent retreat in Silver Spring, Md., for example, a woman from Paris found herself the center of attention among five men who offered to visit her in France. "She did feel a little overwhelmed," recalls Weinstock, who adds that at JDSR events, men usually outnumber women.
Esther and Jake, who asked that their names be changed, had begun their relationship online. When they saw each other at JDSR events, they treated each other as friends, despite Esther's secret crush. Esther went on to date someone else.
Fast forward to the day that Esther broke up with her boyfriend. That's when Jake "realized that maybe I was right for him," she says. "For four years, I thought, 'He lives too far away, he's not religious.' But I was in love with him. We started to work things out."
Esther and Jake take turns traveling to each other's cities and see each other a few days a month. Otherwise, they communicate online. The relationship involves a series of compromises. Esther eats kosher. Jake does not, but since they started dating, he's read a few books about Orthodox Judaism. Jake wants Esther to move to Miami. Esther has a difficult time imagining the day she moves out of New York, but she'll do it if necessary. Her ex-boyfriend might have lived closer by, but what does that mean in the grand scheme of things?
"Jake and I clicked," says Esther regarding the question of what makes someone worthwhile. "We share the same family values, we have great communication, we often think alike. We've thought about each other for so long."
Though they have not yet spoken of a wedding, Esther feels she has met the one. "He feels the same way. We just want to get to know each other more," she says.
Whatever happens, Esther feels a great debt to the JDSR. "It's the best place to meet people if you're Jewish and deaf," she says. "And the more you come to events, the greater your chances are of meeting someone. Sometimes, it doesn't happen right away. Jake and I were friends first. Only later did I realize, 'Hey, what about that guy?' "