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
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
around the same
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
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
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
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.