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Deafhood and Judaism: 

Jewish Concerns: Making Judaism Accessible to the Deaf and Hard-Of-Hearing

by Jana Stewart
30 November, 2008

Being an observant Jew on any level involves a great deal of effort. As Jews we are commanded in the Torah, our holy book, to observe 613 mitzvot (singular; “mitzvah”), or commonly translated as “commandments.” Observing mitzvot is an enormous undertaking and involves a great deal of will power and focus. It is also never easy.

Different Jews have different mitzvot to follow. Some are specific to the land of Israel, some are time specific, and some are specific to men and others to women. We have mitzvot that relate to the treatment of property, each other and even the treatment of animals. What all of these commandments do for us is to allow us to focus, completely, on the most trivial, mundane aspects to our lives. They allow us to understand that what we do; how we behave; all of it is important. All of it is holy. This is quite an amazing concept.

However, with all of this focus on ritual and observance, there exists a problem; the ability of every Jew to participate.

Prayer has replaced the animal sacrifices that were once prevalent during the Temple period. Each prayer laid out in a synagogue service has a specific melody, and is lead by a member of the clergy. Because of the musical nature of services, Jews who are deaf or hard-of-hearing have extreme difficulty in participating in synagogue life. The inability to participate in the fundamentals of Jewish life causes one to feel isolated from the community. It is because of this isolation that so many deaf Jews are either non-observant or completely assimilated into surrounding practices and cultures. Jewish Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing children are often unable to attend religious schools or Jewish Day schools. It is during childhood that a person’s identity is formed, and with the lack of resources for deaf children, their Jewish identity flounders. As a result, they feel uncomfortable participating in synagogue life and are unable to celebrate major lifecycle events such as being called to read the Torah when becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah (a Jewish rite of passage) thus having no foundation to connect them with Jewish life.

Currently, there are few synagogues that offer ASL (American Sign Language) interpretation for deaf members. There have been several attempts over the last century to solve this problem, culminating in the Jewish Deaf Community Center in Southern California, Temple Beth Solomon in Tarzana, California; a synagogue created specifically for the Jewish Deaf community of Los Angeles, the Hebrew Seminary of the Deaf in Skokie, Illinois, as well as others. Though even with these organizations, the community is suffering. All over the United States are deaf and hard-of-hearing Jews who have little to no education due to a lack of resources available.

So what needs to be done to solve this? The greater Jewish community as a whole, regardless of denomination needs to work together in order that ASL interpretation is available in synagogues. The community needs to encourage its members to study ASL in the hope that many will be motivated to become interpreters, or even rabbis themselves. By learning to communicate with each other, we can provide the best education for ourselves and our children; allowing them to feel just how beautiful our traditions and rituals are. Every Jew should be able to connect with his or her people and culture. No one should be pushed away for any reason.

For information regarding American Sign Language (ASL), visit: www.lifeprint.com

References:

Jewish Deaf Community Center. (1992-2008):

http://www.jdcc.org/index.php/site/about/

Lubman, Jeff. (1996). Deaf Jew in the Jewish Community. Jewish Deaf Community Center. Retrieved 30 November, 2008:

http://www.jdcc.org/site/1996/nov-dec/art1.htm

Marcovitz, Liz. (2008, September 16). Opening Our Tent for the Hearing Impaired. The Jewish Outreach Institute. Retrieved 28 November, 2008:

http://joi.org/blog/?cat=9

(2007, May 2) Sixty Deaf and Hearing-impaired Children Celebrate their Bar and Bat Mitzvah. Council of Young Israel Rabbis. Retrieved 30 November, 2008:

http://www.youngisraelrabbis.org.il/heritage1.htm

(2008, September 18) Deaf and Hard of Hearing Concerns. Deaf Jews. Blog Retrieved 30 November, 2008:

http://deafjews.blogspot.com/2008/09/hard-of-hearing-concerns.html

Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf. (2001-2002). Martin Hyman, webmaster:

http://www.tbsdeafjewish.org/about.htm

 


 


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