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Allowing the Deaf to be Jews

by Alexis Kashar

I was born a deaf Jew. Fortunately, both my parents are deaf, as were my paternal grandparents. With three generations of deaf family, I always had the gift of full access to language through sign language. But due to our unique communication situation, my family did not have access to the greater Jewish community and I could not receive a Jewish education.

My sister Debbie is the only member of my birth family who can hear. She was trapped between the hearing world, the deaf world, and the Jewish world. She was not deaf, yet she too had no access to the greater community because it was inaccessible to our family.

After I received my law degree from the University of Texas at Austin I relocated to Los Angeles, where I focused on civil rights, specifically special education and disability rights. Little did I realize that this advocacy work would serve me well when I would become a mother.

As I was forging ahead professionally, my family expanded as well. My children all were born in Los Angeles: Leah, who is now 14, Ava, 12, and Benjamin, 9. They all are hearing.

In Los Angeles, my experience as a Jewish mother began as a battle, and in my role as a mother I faced my greatest challenges to participation in Jewish communal life. Like most Jews, I want to give my kids the gift of moral stability. I want them to become full-fledged members of the community. For this to happen, I had to join a synagogue, go to services, and become a practicing Jew to share the experience with my children and be a role model for them.

I soon learned that the doors to the Jewish world were not open and it was not welcoming to me and other deaf people. I was unable to experience Judaism freely with my children. I was told that communication access to the Jewish world was too costly, even though I was a full paying member of a synagogue and enrolled my children in its preschool. I was uncomfortable bringing my own interpreter to services, but negotiating for access reduced me to a beggar.

I was begging to be given the opportunity to be a Jew. I would have to pay more than everyone else to participate in my own heritage. Paying for my own interpreter is the equivalent of making people who use wheelchairs provide their own ramps.

We moved to Westchester County in New York State seven years ago. My Jewish challenges increased when my oldest child approached bat mitzvah age and I realized that I could no longer accept the status quo. I was conflicted between my desire to be an active participant in her Jewish experience and being worn out from beating on the walls. For example, to kick off the preparation for her bat mitzvah, we were to attend a Shabbat retreat arranged by her religious school. I am embarrassed to admit that I almost skipped this event altogether because I was not sure how to create the access that I needed without being intrusive. I was burnt out from fighting for access to several important events taking place at around the same time.

Fortunately, I had become involved with the Jewish Deaf Resource Center, a national advocacy organization. Its founder, Naomi Brunnlehrman, agreed to work with me and encouraged me to make the Shabbat retreat a priority. She even offered her services as an interpreter. A trilingual interpreter, she is able to interpret Jewish prayer from Hebrew to American Sign Language as well as to interpret from English to ASL and vice versa. The Shabbaton would have been inaccessible without such an interpreter.

My daughter and I went to the retreat. It was so meaningful that I became even more committed to the success of her bat mitzvah. Leah’s Torah portion, from the book of Leviticus, included the commandment that forbids cursing the deaf or placing a stumbling block before the blind. To me this means that the Jewish community is obligated to welcome those who are deaf or blind.

This was my wake up call to work with the Jewish world.

This Rosh Hashanah was especially bittersweet. For the first time I celebrated the Jewish new year with my parents, who came to New York from Texas knowing that my synagogue would provide full access to services. My mother made her first challah with her grandchildren. During services, congregants chose to sit closer to the interpreters so they could enjoy the ASL translation, which allows us to see our liturgy in three dimensions. The 3D translation is a gift for everyone.

Interpreters are not a luxury. They are a necessity. The community pays for many mandatory expenses and takes care of many different groups. Not to pay for interpreters is to say that the souls of deaf Jews are unworthy.

Inclusion requires commitment on every level. Funds and resources are necessary, but that will not be enough. To include this longneglected group will require open minds willing to tear down the barriers that divide us. Thanks to the historic teshuvah written by Rabbi Pamela Barmash, the right of deaf Jews to worship as equals is now recognized by the Conservative movement.

The recent actions of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards are a stellar example of how the community can include the deaf. The committee unanimously passed the teshuvah Rabbi Barmash wrote, which recognizes that people who communicate in sign language are equal to those who use spoken language, and that the Jewish community must be accessible to all and inclusive of everyone. Rabbi Barmash is striving to make other portions of Jewish law accessible to those of us who are deaf or hard of hearing, for example the right to read from the Torah in sign language.

Rabbis across the country and around the world have discussed the teshuvah in their sermons, congregants have opened their hearts and eyes to members who are deaf, and families now are celebrating bar and bat mitzvahs with a sense of belonging. I give profound thanks to Rabbi Barmash and the many others who have worked tirelessly to make the Jewish world more inclusive for all.

But our work has just begun.

Alexis Ander Kashar is a civil right attorney; she is also the president of the Jewish Deaf Resource Center board and the public policy chair for the National Association for the Deaf. She lives in Scarsdale, New York.


by Rabbi Pamela Barmash

I am a member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement, which addresses important contemporary issues in Jewish law. Committee members write teshuvot in response to questions about crucial, even controversial, topics; once those teshuvot are accepted by the committee, they become halachah for Conservative Jews. When the question of whether the deaf could serve as witnesses at a conversion or a marriage ceremony was suggested to me I was not aware of how important the issue was. I began by visiting schools for the deaf and discussing the topics with advocates for the deaf in Jewish communities. I quickly realized that this was a vitally important issue. I was impressed with the passion of those who work with the deaf, and I was dismayed by the profound hurt felt by deaf Jews over their exclusion from our communities and schools. In fact, deaf Jews often have the sense that they are being ignored.

I decided to expand the scope of my teshuvah by addressing the status of the deaf in general in halachah and by exploring the use of sign language in Jewish observance. I also wanted this teshuvah to articulate a philosophy of halachic innovation dealing with texts and concepts in our tradition that relate to the deaf in troubling ways. I wrote a draft of the teshuvah and asked a number of deaf Jews, advocates for the deaf, rabbis on the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, and other rabbis for their comments and criticism. To me, asking for a critique of what I write is indispensable. I received valuable suggestions about which observances to address and possible ways in which the deaf can observe mitzvot. A number of rabbis had qualms about calling attention to longstanding negative attitudes about the deaf, but I felt that pointing it out was essential. Many deaf people are taken aback by the way the deaf had been excluded from the mitzvot. Understanding how the deaf were misunderstood by the hearing (both Jewish and non-Jewish) is the first step toward treating them with respect.

Among the key points of the teshuvah is that the cognitive ability of the deaf is equal to the cognitive ability of the hearing. Historically, the hearing lacked the ability to communicate with the deaf and mistakenly concluded that the deaf had defects in their intellectual ability. Thanks to sign language and the education it made possible hearing people recognize the cognitive ability of the deaf. Of specific importance to halachah, sign language is a means of communication equal in sophistication to oral language. This means that sign language can convey all the information required in halachic matters such as a marriage or conversion ceremony. The deaf therefore can serve as witnesses.

The deaf can pray in sign language. Our prayers can be recited in any language. However, certain prayers, such as the Shema, need to be articulated (the lips must move, even without uttering a sound). Do the physical movements of sign language fulfill this requirement? The requirement of articulation is meant to help us focus in prayer. (Try counting to a high number to yourself. You’ll probably lose count. But count to a high number while mouthing the number – you’ll have a far better chance of counting all the way.) I contend that the physical movements of sign language serve the same purpose as articulating certain prayers with the lips, and therefore prayers like the Shema can be recited in sign language.

This teshuvah demonstrates how Jewish tradition can meet the challenges facing all of klal Yisrael. To read it, go to www.rabbinicalassembly.org.

Rabbi Pamela Barmash, Ph.D., is director of Jewish, Islamic and Near Eastern studies and associate professor of Hebrew Bible and biblical Hebrew at Washington University in St. Louis. She is a member of the Conservative movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and of the Joint Beit Din.

 
 
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