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Building Bridges with Our Hands: Connecting with the Jewish Deaf

YachadBy Chana Mayefsky
Yachad, The National
Jewish Council for Disabilities

Just the other day, as I was driving my six year old daughter Leba and her friend Chani home from school, the two first-graders held the following conversation.

Leba gestured something to Chani, and Chani said, “What are you doing?”

Leba: “It’s a sign.”

Chani: “What’s a sign?”

Leba: “It’s a way of talking with your hands. See, I’m moving my hands this way and it means a word.”

Chani: “Why?”

Leba: “It’s for people who can’t hear, so they talk to each other with their hands. This is spaghetti (twirling your pinkies) and this is popcorn (moving your pointers up and down, like popping popcorn).”

I was amazed.

My two year old daughter Esther’s Early Intervention speech therapist had recommended that we watch some sign language dvds. Esther’s speech was a bit delayed and she was frustrated, just as we were, by our inability to communicate well with her. Our therapist brought over some videos and I put them on for my kids.

To my surprise, Leba and Esther loved the Signing Time dvds. They asked to watch them instead of Uncle Moishe and quickly began picking up the signs and using them.

They are not fluent or even close to it, but they enjoy signing. Leba sometimes even makes up her own signs and expects me to understand them. When I tell her that I don’t know what she’s saying, she explains her logic as to why a certain movement should indicate a particular word or idea.

And she takes such pride in her signing.

This past summer I spoke with Rachel Coleman, the founder of Signing Time, a company that produces sign language videos and accessories to help people communicate with their deaf friends and relatives. Her daughter, deaf from birth, was being ostracized because even those who wanted to communicate with her didn’t know how.

So Rachel decided to do something about it.
She produced her own video that incorporated catchy songs and themes to teach regular kids (and adults) some useful signs. Her concept was so successful that she turned it into a business that has generated accolades from users around the country.

Unbeknownst to many in the orthodox community, there is a population of our fellow Jews who is deaf or hard of hearing. They number in the low thousands and it’s time we reached out to them.

According to Rabbi Lederfiend, Director of the OU’s Our Way for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, the deaf Jewish culture has changed drastically in the last thirty years, thanks in large part to technology.

“There was always a controversy between those who signed and those who went orally,” explains Rabbi Lederfiend. Some deaf people think it's better to sign and maintain more of the
integrity of deaf culture. Others, if given the opportunity, would opt to speak over sign. “Now, a lot of the younger deaf are getting a cochlear implant which basically inserts a computer chip in their ear and allows them to hear instantly through the computer.”

Although many deaf are getting the implant and are able to be mainstreamed into Jewish day school, the rabbi insists that they still feel different.

At night, his two daughters shut off the computer and are deaf once again.

At Our Way, work is constantly being done to improve the quality of life for the Jewish deaf.
There are Shabbatons, pamphlets with signs for Shabbat, tefillin, and the Pesach seder, as well as manuals and videos teaching Jewish concepts.

For Purim, Megillat Esther will be projected on a large screen in over 150 synagogues around the country in English and Hebrew. Someone uses a pointer to indicate where the baal koreh is reading and everyone can follow along.

And it is not only the deaf and hard of hearing who benefit from these kinds of activities. Children and the elderly appreciate these efforts too.

Perhaps most importantly, however, is making our brothers and sisters feel welcome.

“They don’t want to be looked at as different, as handicapped” explains Batya Jabob, Program Director at Our Way and the Educational Services and NJ Association of Jewish Day Schools. “They want to be included.”

We can make a difference, according to Batya, by being sensitive to their needs and including them in our social groups and synagogues.

We can employ the Jewish deaf.

“Give them a job,” says Batya. “They’re normal, intelligent, stable people. They can take notes, text, and email. It opens everything up to them.”

There are sign language classes in community colleges through FEGS-Health and Human Services System in Manhattan. And, of course, there are Signing Time dvds, a fun way for children to learn some sign language.

More synagogues can open their arms to the deaf community by hiring signing interpreters and oral interpreters who help people read lips better.

Jewish day schools can modify their classrooms to better accommodate and integrate deaf children.

We can volunteer at Our Way. Now that a large portion of the deaf has cochlear implants, not all the volunteers even need to know how to sign.

“We’re always looking for volunteers,” says Batya. “Don’t be afraid of the deaf.”

Let’s give our children something real to be proud of. Let’s get out there a make a difference.

To volunteer or request Our Way signing material, please contact Rabbi Eliezer Lederfeind at 212-613-8234 or email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Source: http://www.njcd.org/index.php/njcd/news/building_bridges_with_our_hands_connecting_jewish_deaf_chana_mayefsky/

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