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What a Deaf Jewish Leader Expects of a Rabbi

What a Deaf Jewish Leader Expects of a Rabbi
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Frederick C. Schreiber

[Editor’s Note: while doing Internet research, we came across this document and now posting it to share with others.]

Historically, American churches and synagogues, while preaching tolerance and charity to their hearing congregants, have in practice neglected to include the Deaf in their fellowship – and this despite the religious cast of all early efforts to educate Deaf children. Today in the United States, houses of worship are specifically exempted from compliance with the federal, state, and local civil rights laws that mandate equal opportunity for Deaf Americans. This speech was given at a government workshop by the president of the National Association of the Deaf.

To say what a deaf leader expects of a rabbi is an occasion made for platitudes could discuss for hours all the characteristics of a rabbi which are common demands of everyone, whether he is deaf or not. As matter of fact, the main point here is not what the deaf leader expects of a rabbi, but rather what he thinks the deaf Jew needs and wants from his rabbi, and this is somewhat more complex. Speaking from my own experiences as a deaf Jew, there are a number of things which appear to stand out as strong problems where religious matters are concerned.

The first of these is the lack of an adequate religious education. There are only one or two schools for the deaf in this country that have any relation to the Jewish faith and even in these schools the opportunities available to the child to learn about his own religion are minimal. Being raised in the Jewish faith at home does not do much to solve the problem. The deaf child needs the same opportunity to learn the hows and whys of his faith as does any other child. He needs not only religious instruction, but also explanations as to why things are not always the way they should be, He needs to know why, for example, he does not always go home from school on Rosh Hashonna or fast on Yom Kippur, He needs to know why his food is Kosher at home but not in school. But nose of all he needs to feel that his faith has a deep and abiding interest in him and his welfare and that his rabbi is his teacher, his counselor, his source of comfort and advice in times distress.

Deaf people live in a world that differs vastly from any other because the common medium that binds most people together is communication. Our world is an auditory one, and the inability to learn by auditory methods imposes a heavy burden on the individual which, so far, has proven barely tolerable. Hellen Keller once noted that if she had to do it all over again she would devote her time to working with the deaf because “blindness cuts you off from things, while deafness cuts you off from people”.

It is this isolation that needs to be broken down and it is in this area that the rabbi can be of most help. A good Christian friend of mine once told me that it is impossible for a deaf person to fully integrate into the world of the hearing. This man had good speech, good lip-reading ability and he said: “I tried this (integration) in my church. I felt that if I could succeed anywhere, that would be the place because in church, people are consciously kind”.

Whether or not my friend is correct is immaterial for this paper. The point is that there are very few avenues through which any deaf person can get sympathetic understanding and help for his problems. The deaf Jew needs to have someone to turn to in times of stress, someone who can counsel him, comfort him, guide him not only in religious matters, but with secular problems as well.

Most communities have an abundance of social service agencies which cover the entire spectrum of human needs. But if the Washington Community Survey is any indication, none of these agencies are equipped to deal with deaf persons. Few have personnel who can even communicate with deaf people. Even fewer have people whose knowledge of the psychology of deafness, the educational background and childhood development of the congenitally deaf person, is adequate enough for effective counseling.

When the deaf Jew needs help, can he go to his rabbi and get it? Right now the answer must be “no”. But he ought to the able to do so. What’s more, the concept of seeking help from this source should be instilled in early childhood, so that when one grows older, one will instinctively think of one’s rabbi in times of stress.

This, of course, poses problems. Few rabbis are any more familiar with the deaf that are social service agencies mentioned previously. It may be unrealistic to expect that every rabbinical student be required to familiarize himself with what is an admittedly complex subject when the chances that he will have deaf people in his congregation are minimal to say the least. Still, it is not unreasonable to suggest that such students be advised to seek help from more knowledgeable people before attempting to give guidance, should the need arise. The deaf person can quickly recognize that his advisor is not familiar with the complexities of his disability and turn away, rejecting not only the advice but the advisor and perhaps even the Temple itself.

It does not seem far-fetched to suggest that rabbis be alerted to this problem and advised that the National Congress of Jewish Deaf be contacted as soon as one discovers there are deaf Jews in one’s congregation. Then the Congress could provide lists of referral agencies and other sources of information that are available to the rabbis. Such professional help as psychiatrists, interpreters, social workers, etc., is available and can be secured when needed.

Where there are deaf Jews in a congregation the rabbi might assume a major role between the deaf person and community service agencies: in particular, the State’s Vocational Rehabilitation Agency and the counselor assigned to the deaf person. While Rehabilitation Agency counselors may know a little more about deafness that the average rabbi, generally this is only a smidgen more and the counselor, overburdened with a heavy caseload to begin with, cannot give his deaf client the time and attention he needs. But a rabbi could – he has, generally speaking, few handicapped people in his congregation and even fewer who need the kind of help the deaf individual requires. Thus, working with a Vocational Rehabilitation counselor, the rabbi could do much to help that counselor provide real service to his client. He might be able to ease communication difficulties, help with some the formalities involved in processing a case, such as making medicinal appointments, hearing tests, or whatever is needed to help the client.

Religious leadership is another area where one would hope that the rabbis might exert a positive force. In my own community in Metropolitan Washington, there are enough Jews for at least special services on occasions such as Rosh Hashonna, Yom Kippur and Passover. This situation exists in other communities as well, but such services are seldom held. One might wonder why don’t the deaf people themselves move in this direction? And that would be a valid question. The answer might be, first, that we have never received any encouragement to do so. Then there is the problem of communication; a deaf Jew can’t just pick up the telephone and find a Temple of rabbi who is willing and able to arrange for such services, nor can he easily reach the other members of his faith to convey the information. Finally, the quality of leadership varies from community to community so that truly effective leadership on the local level is scarce. Most deaf people are underemployed so that even the community leaders are severely restricted in what they can do; all are volunteers with very limited resources.

These are but a few of the things one expects from one’s rabbi. Perhaps a great deal of attention should be focused on the children of the deaf. They are seldom considered, but they have a far-reaching effect on Judaism. All evidence has shown that the deaf Jew has been sadly neglected by his religion. How, then, can he be a functioning member of his own congregation and also insure that his hearing children will be brought up the faith of his fathers.

When I tried to enroll my children in Sunday School Montgomery County where I live, I was told I had to be a member of the congregation, and despite my pointing out that I would derive no benefit from such membership, I was told “it would make my children feel better” if I joined. So I joined. I asked only that my children’s teachers be made aware that I was deaf and did not have the training necessary to fulfill the role of a typical Jewish father. This did no good because my children were continually coming home with questions that their teachers had told them to “ask their father”. These questions, of course, I could not answer, which embarrassed both me and my children. So I refused to continue as a member of this congregation and took my problem to a Reformed Temple hoping for more understanding. Here I was told by the rabbi that he was more interested in me than in my children. But I knew at that time there was little he could do for me, although, if my children had proper training, proper contacts, it was possible, even probable, that when they grew older they could interpret for me at the Services and thus bring me back in the fold. Since this was not be, I had a private tutor to complete their religious education because it was never a matter of cost but rather of principle that motivated my actions. My sons were Bar Mitzvah but they never really had the social or religious contacts with lead to regular attendance at any Temple. At this time, two of my children have married Gentiles. The other two will probably do the same. This hurts. Whether he attends a Temple or not, whether he is a deaf or not, a Jewish boy who grows up in a Jewish household, is still a Jew. And I began to wonder – how many families are there in the same situation as I? If the deaf Jew is not important to the Temple, certainly his children’s children should be and their future is worth considering.

Larges cities have deaf congregations. New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, all boast of congregations of deaf people. All have regular services for deaf Jews and some may even make provision for the children of their members, but not enough is being done, not for the hearing children of deaf parents, not for the deaf children who live in all parts of the country, not just in the big cities and even in the cities where there are deaf congregations; all too often the impact is lost by the use of lay readers, interpreters and the like. The deaf Jew is reasonable enough to understand why an interpreter might be needed where only a few deaf people are involved. We do not really believe that every rabbi should or would learn to communicate with us in our own language, but we do think that where congregation is large enough this should be done. We should be able to get rabbis who are thoroughly familiar with all aspects of deafness, who can communicate with us in our own language, and who can instill in us a feeling of trust and security.

For our deaf children, there should be a more intensified effort to see to it that they get proper religious training. It is disheartening to note that when reading over the literature on education, there is, if not frequent, at least regular mention of what is available for Christians – and almost nothing – I say almost to be conservative because I have found nothing at all – about programs for Jews. I don’t care whose fault this is and I would not even want to speculate on whose responsibility it is to insure that something is done to provide our deaf Jewish children with adequate religious training. It seems to me that if religion is important, then it is the responsibility of those primarily concerned with religion to see to it that the children are not neglected.

It is fairly certain that there is at least one Temple located in those communities that contain residential schools for the deaf. Many of these schools may have only a few Jewish children but they are there. For the most part the children, perhaps, are en route between the school and their homes on Fridays; they generally live too far from the school to return to their homes for the holidays, Jewish holidays that is; so they get no attention at all. Why can’t the Temple take the initiative in seeing to it that the children get adequate training? I am sure school administrations would cooperate, and that interpreters, could be found to assist the rabbis in this important task if it were undertaken. When one stops to consider that it is not only the deaf child who is being lost to Israel, but also his children and his children’s children, the effort necessary appears justified. After all, aren’t we all the Lord’s Chosen People ?