Deaf Rabbi Prepares To Lead a Hearing Congregation in Massachusetts
‘I may not hear very well, but I really know how to listen,’ says Rabbi Darby Leigh, as deaf Jews make strides in the community
In addition to Dubowe and Leigh, there are four Orthodox deaf rabbis who, while they do not lead hearing congregations, all work in some capacity to support the spiritual needs of the deaf Jewish community: Rabbi Fred Friedman, born in Austria to parents who survived the Holocaust, was ordained by Ner Israel Yeshiva of Baltimore and is the 2011-2013 Conference Rabbi of the Jewish Deaf Congress. Rabbi David Kastor, also of Baltimore and also ordained by Ner Israel, started the Ahavas Israel School for the deaf in Frederick, Md., and has worked for Our Way for 25 years. Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Kakon is the Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshivas Nefesh Dovid for the deaf, and Soudakoff runs Jewish Deaf Multimedia.
In June, the Jewish Deaf Congress, established in 1956 in New York City, held its 28th biennial conference in Washington, D.C., during which rabbis, attorneys, professors, and life coaches addressed the audience of 200 on topics from learning Israeli sign language to what the program describes as “legal issues surrounding being a deaf Jewish individual in the United States seeking spiritual accessibility.”
In addition to the Jewish Deaf Congress, a number of organizations serve the needs of deaf American Jews. In New York, Our Way, the Orthodox Union’s agency, puts out publications of Jewish prayers and organizes weekend Shabbatons that connect deaf Jews with local congregations. Additionally, it organizes a Jewish Deaf Singles Registry. The Jewish Deaf Resource Center of the UJA Federation works to establish connections and build bridges between deaf individuals and Jewish communities. The UJA also funds the New York Jewish Community Deaf Interpreting Fund, which pays for monthly Shabbat services sign-language interpreters.
Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf, a Reform synagogue, has been serving Los Angeles’ deaf community since 1960; it has a community of 50 families, and its rabbi is hard of hearing. Chicago boasts the Hebrew Seminary of the Deaf. But the biggest Jewish deaf community is in Washington, D.C., according to Jeffrey Cohen, president of Washington Society of Jewish Deaf, because of Gallaudet University but also because the federal government is the nation’s biggest employer of persons with disabilities. The Washington Society of Jewish Deaf holds interpreted High Holiday Services, lectures, and cultural events that are typically attended by about 100 people. The Hillel at Gallaudet offers its community interpreted Shabbat services every Saturday.
Cohen feels that while the language of a “split” is too harsh, deaf individuals tend to “gravitate toward their comfort zone, with their deaf peers, because of the communication barrier.”
Dubowe noted that “the deaf world is quite complex,” she wrote. “There are deaf people who only use ASL, there are some who speak and read lips, and there are some who do both.” She added that a debate exists among deaf individuals about the desirability of interpreters. Some “want direct communication,” she wrote in an email, “which is why it’s more desirable to be in a deaf community where there is a common language, a common culture and history. There have been tremendous strides to include deaf people in the Jewish community but due to the fact that most do not know ASL, there is a greater preference to be surrounded by other deaf people.”
“The ideal picture would be to provide training and education for potential Jewish deaf leaders including rabbis and educators and so forth,” Dubowe wrote. “However, there are very few that would be motivated to do this because they have limited exposure to the Jewish community as a whole.”
Despite the communication barrier, Cohen feels certain that the future of the Jewish deaf community is very strong. “There is a need,” he said. “People are proud to be Jewish. They want to connect to their Jewish heritage.”
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