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Challenge Of Being Both Jewish And Deaf

Communication obstacles make it difficult for Deaf Israelites to have strong Jewish identities. "When it comes to Judaism, [hearing-impaired Jews] really have been neglected for many, many years," says Rabbi Chanoch Yeres, programming director of the deaf program run by Yeshiva University Alumni in Israel. The program was founded in 1989 to teach rabbis and educators how they can help people with hearing disabilities and to help Jews with hearing difficulties better identify with their religious and cultural traditions. Yeres, who can hear but knows Israeli sign language, says he has seen an "outpouring of interest in Jewish identity" from hearing-impaired Jews. "They want to be accepted as part of the community... Not in terms of becoming religious, but in terms of knowing what it's all about." They are looking for religious leaders to initiate discussions and answer their questions with out condescension. They thirst to know more about basic Jewish traditions and history, asking questions about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the holidays, says Yeres, a former New Yorker. A group of deaf and hard-of-hearing young adults from the US got a chance to connect to their Judaism last month on the first "birthright Israel" trip to include participants with hearing disabilities. The trip was run by Our Way, an American group for hearing-impaired Jews affiliated with the National Jewish Council for the Disabled. But Jewish identity maybe an even more glaring issue outside Israel, where many other identities compete for attention and assimilation poses a greater threat. Trip leaders comment on the way the commonality of deafness lifts social barriers that might have precluded such a conversation in the hearing world. But while the overriding bond of hearing impairment may link Jews on the trip, it may also be one of the causes of intermarriage among Jewish Deaf people. Intermarriage holds a lot of attraction for American Jews who are hearing impaired, says Batya Jacob, program director for Our Way and organizer of the birthright trip. The combination of limited Jewish knowledge and the pull of Deaf Culture results in a high level of assimilation, she says. There is no synagogue in Israel that translates its services for the deaf on a regular basis, says Yeres. His synagogue in Jerusalem's Yemin Moshe provides translations a few times a year. Hearing-impaired Jews who have little Jew ish knowledge differ significantly from those who have comparable knowledge but hear perfectly, says Witty. Those who can hear always nave the option of attending a lecture or chatting with a rabbi. "There are choices available to the hearing unaffiliated Jew. But there are very few choices for the deaf unaffiliated Jew," he says. But while maintaining a Jewish identity can be a struggle outside Israel, some say hearing-impaired Israeli Jews are exposed to Jewish concepts from such a young age that developing a Jewish identity is only natural.


This Month's Video

Irina, our event coordinator, shares the exciting updates of the #DeafChanukah event in this video!

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