Feeling is Believing: Shabbat Shines for Jewish Deafblind

by | in Inspiration

With canes in their hands and anticipation on their faces, a number of men and women made their way to the Pearlstone Retreat Center’s main lobby. They had traveled from around the country to the Maryland retreat to experience Shabbat with people just like themselves—Jews who could neither see the light of the Shabbat candles nor hear the words of Kiddush.

Welcome to the Second Annual Jewish Deafblind Shabbaton. Held a few months ago, the event was coordinated by Jewish Advocates for Deaf Education (JADE), a division of the Macks Center for Jewish Education (CJE) based in Baltimore, and co-sponsored by the Orthodox Union’s Our Way program for the deaf, Towson University, Vital Signs Inc., and the American retailing company Target. Organized by a dedicated group of volunteers from the Baltimore area, the Shabbaton brought together fourteen deafblind Jewish individuals ranging from age sixteen to sixty-something to connect with each other and their Judaism, a rare and joyful encounter they hope to repeat this coming June.

“A deafblind person can be in a room with 500 people, but unless someone communicates with him, he doesn’t know what is going on around him; he is totally isolated,” says Rabbi Eliezer Lederfeind, national director of Our Way. “The Shabbaton was an opportunity for Jewish deafblind individuals to connect with people who understand them.”

Approximately 1.2 million people in the country have combined vision and hearing loss, according to a recent study by the National Research & Training Center on Blindness & Low Vision at Mississippi State University. The number of Jewish deafblind individuals in this country is unknown.

Participants at the Shabbaton had the opportunity to learn about and experience Judaism, virtually non-existent in their lives, in an environment that was 100 percent accessible to them. “After spending years creating programs for the deaf where we try to make everything visual, this was a whole different experience,” says Yael Zelinger, coordinator for JADE. “At this event, everything had to be tactile.” Deafblind individuals use their handds to connect to the larger world.

Each deafblind participant had an SSP (support service provider), a trained paraprofessional who, along with interpreting, fosters interaction between the deafblind individual and his surroundings (e.g., informs him who is in the room, who is speaking, when to sit down for lunch, et cetera). Each participant “listened” attentively by following the signing movements of his SSP’s hands. Due to the intense concentration required of the SSPs, all of whom were volunteers, they worked rotating shifts, selflessly devoting their time and skills throughout the Shabbaton.

Friday afternoon, clusters of people gathered close to one another, signing quickly into each others’ hands, expressing their excitement about meeting up again with friends they had made the previous year at the First Annual Jewish Deafblind Shabbaton.

“I felt a connection with the deafblind participants that went beyond facilitating communication,” says Joyce Dworsky-Srour, founder and director of Vital Signs LLC, a sign language interpreting service for the Baltimore/Washington area, who served as an SSP. “I clued them into everything going on around them. I wasn’t only signing the words that I heard; I let them know the speaker is holding up a mezuzah or someone just came into the room and is carrying a birthday cake. I had to be their ears, as well as their eyes.”

Most of the participants had little exposure to Judaism, as few Jewish social or educational opportunities exist for the deafblind population, leaving them vulnerable to missionaries offering appealing options. “The fact that they even have a Jewish identity,” says Rabbi Lederfeind, “is a miracle.”

The idea of a Shabbaton for deafblind Jews came to Rabbi Lederfeind during a Shabbaton he hosted for deaf Jews in Ohio. Jeffrey Bohrman, a deafblind individual from Columbus, expressed an interest in attending the Our Way event.

“It was a first for us,” says Rabbi Lederfeind. “We realized he would need two interpreters [due to the exhausting nature of the job]; it would cost us more money than the entire Shabbaton!” Despite the financial concerns, Our Way welcomed Bohrman. While signing to participants during the Shabbaton, Rabbi Lederfeind cracked a joke. “Nobody laughed,” he recalled. “Then, about a minute later, Jeff burst out laughing. Because of the additional time required for tactile transmission, it took him a little longer to get the joke. I decided then and there that if he laughs at my jokes, he deserves many more Shabbatonim,” says Rabbi Lederfeind with a chuckle.

“The needs of deafblind individuals are so unique; for those of us who are Jewish, they are even more unique,” says Bohrman, who has a doctorate in pharmacology and currently heads a statewide program that provides services and resources to individuals who have both hearing and vision loss. “I’ve been to a couple of Shabbatons for the deaf community in Columbus; it’s definitely not the same as being among other Jews who are deafblind.”

“Programming for Jews who are deafblind is very new, thanks to the efforts of the OU’s Our Way program,” says Zelinger. “Through his connections with the Jewish deaf community, Rabbi Lederfeind learned about this sub-minority and set the stage for new programs that would reach this population. He also found sponsors for the Shabbatonim.” No participant was turned away because of cost.

Discovering the Sixth Sense – Shabbat Ruach
Sundown approached and the SSPs guided the female participants to the dining room. They stood before the rows of tea lights and gently directed the women’s hands toward the wicks. “Some had never lit Shabbat candles before,” says Dr. Sheryl Cooper, director of the deaf studies program at Towson University in Baltimore who co-chaired the Shabbaton, along with Sheryl Eisenberg Michalowski, deaf liaison for Simon, Eisenberg and Baum, LLP, a law firm serving deaf, hard of hearing, and deafblind clients with various issues at the workplace. “Two individuals had grown up in Orthodox homes, but as they lost their hearing and vision, as well as their parents, they no longer had Jewish practices in their lives. It was a very emotional experience.”

The seudah began with a perfectly synchronized chain of communication. Rabbi Larry Ziffer, CJE’s executive vice president, recited Kiddush, as Rabbi Fred Friedman, a deaf rav in Baltimore, signed the benediction for those with limited sight. The SSPs then transmitted the holy words into their charges’ palms. Throughout the festive meal, just outside their dark and silent individual worlds, the Shabbat guests filled the room with animated signing and sounds of laughter.

Jeff Bohrman, a deafblind individual from Columbus, Ohio, lights up as Rabbi Eliezer Lederfeind, national director of Our Way, wraps tefillin for him.

Afterward, the group participated in an innovative icebreaker. Each participant received a Jewish-themed food such as grape juice, apples, jars of honey, hamantashen, challot, doughnuts and matzot. They were then instructed to find the individual with the food that matched their own, requiring them to move from person to person with their SSPs, meeting people and exchanging names. When all the matches were made, they introduced their partners to the group and together explained what was Jewish about a doughnut or grape juice, et cetera.

“Hi. I’m Jaime,” signed one participant. “I have Usher’s Syndrome Type 1.” Noticeably moved, she added, “And I’m very happy to be here.”

Most of the individuals attending the Shabbaton were at varying stages of Usher’s Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder characterized by deafness at birth and gradual vision loss. Organizers made sure the lighting and backdrop in the presentation rooms would not be distracting to participants with limited vision. Additionally, SSPs wore black shirts so that their hands, while signing, would be more distinct. A halachic question arose when it became clear that the dining room sconces were distracting for certain participants and needed to be turned off on Shabbat.

“The participants were the center of attention,” says Rabbi Lederfeind. “They had a chance to express themselves and feel that what they had to say was important. We’re giving them chiyus [life]. It was an opportunity to focus not on what they don’t have, but on what they do have.”

Building on the Shabbaton’s “The Circle of Jewish Life” theme, organizers arranged an array of stimulating lectures and hands-on activities highlighting the milestones of Jewish life. For Craig Einzig and his sister Marci Friedman, the Shabbaton was a family affair. “I got to spend time with my brother, which is always really important to me,” says Friedman from Colonia, New Jersey, who, in response to her brother’s deafblindness, became a professional sign language interpreter and served as his SSP for the event. “It was very emotional being around others so eager and willing to help make the experience special. Individuals who are deafblind are often shunned; even the deaf community has a hard time being involved with them,” she says. “Being blind too is the worst thing they can imagine.”

Deafblind Shabbaton attendees “applaud” in sign just before they head home, thrilled to have spent an uplifting Shabbat together.

The Shabbaton gave friends a chance to catch up. Their hands and fingers connected, bridging the space between them and moving together in an exquisite choreography of valued friendship. “It was wonderful seeing participants so open to Jewish things that are really not part of their direct experience,” says Arlene Fruchter, a teacher of deaf individuals for over twenty-five years and the founder of the Our Way Boston chapter. “One of the real highlights was seeing [some of] the male participants put on tefillin Sunday morning.” Two individuals put on tefillin for the first time at the last Shabbaton, one at this one.

The majority of the classes and activities were led by members of Baltimore’s Jewish deaf and deafblind community. Rabbi Friedman and Rabbi David Kastor, both of whom are deaf, addressed the significance of the bar/bat mitzvah, as well as one’s Hebrew name and birthday. Then they opened up the floor to questions. “I never had a bar mitzvah,” signed one of the men, looking concerned. “At what age is it too late to have one?” Rabbi Kastor reassured the group that as soon as a boy turns thirteen, he’s a bar mitzvah from then on. Sarah Leah Kovacs, a deafblind participant, held a class for the women on the deeper meaning of the Shema, emphasizing that this primary assertion of the Jewish people actually urges Jews to “pay attention” rather than to literally “hear.”

“It was an empowering experience for the deaf and deaf-blind participants,” says Zelinger. “They were closely involved in the planning of the Shabbaton, they had the opportunity to present the workshops, and some of the SSPs for the deafblind were themselves deaf.”

Leah Caplan, a Baltimore resident and artist who is a member of Our Way, led the painting activity on Sunday morning.

A Powerful Beginning
Martin Greenberg, a deafblind participant from Manhattan who is fiercely independent and an admitted subway aficionado, travels alone throughout the city and even ventures out to San Francisco, Seattle and Hawaii.

Deafblind Shabbaton participants Craig Einzig (left) of New Jersey and Martin Greenberg of Manhattan connect in conversation and friendship. Marci, Craig’s sister and SSP, is in the background.

Greenberg looks forward to the upcoming event in the spring. “I really wish that I could have stayed even longer,” he says. “Like four or five days. This Shabbaton was just the beginning.”

Motzaei Shabbat found the group, in white aprons, sitting around a long table, happily mixing sugar, water and yeast in the big black bowls set before them. Soon the smell of dough permeated the air. Dr. Cooper rallied the forces. “We need more SSPs over here,” she announced. Tchia, Rabbi Kastor’s wife who is also deaf, was about to explain how to make challah. Meanwhile, a batch of prepared cookie dough and dreidel- and menorah-shaped stencils were placed on the side for the next baking project.

Fingers were busy kneading, braiding and decorating. One participant, visibly excited, signed that this was the first time she had ever made challah.

After the baking was over, Nancy Topolosky, a freelance interpreter from Silver Spring, Maryland, described the excitment in the air.

“When making the cookies and the challah with one of the women, at one point I tried to direct her hand to something. She pushed my hand away as if to say, ‘I can do this myself and I’m enjoying it, so get out of my way!’ Afterward, she was laughing all the way back to her room. I stopped and asked, ‘Are you happy?’ She signed, ‘I enjoyed myself so much.’”

Rabbi Lederfeind would like to thank Mr. Lawrence and Donna Ludwig for donating $5,000 to Our Way toward the Deafblind Shabbaton; the couple plans to do the same for the next Shabbaton. He would also like to thank Joyce Srour of Vital Signs LLC, who provided many scholarships for the participants.

Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2012.

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