I’m Deaf. I’m Blind. And I’m Jewish!

July 1, 2013

“I’M DEAF. I’M BLIND. AND I’M JEWISH!”
SHABBAT SHINES FOR A DEAFBLIND BOY

As told to Bayla Sheva Brenner

Bayla Sheva Brenner is Senior Writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department

With canes in their hands and anticipation on their faces, the participants made their way towards the Maryland retreat main lobby. They traveled from across the country to the Maryland retreat to experience Shabbat with Jews just like themselves – who could neither see the light of the Shabbat candles nor hear the words of Kiddush.

Welcome to the third annual Jewish Deafblind Shabbaton.

From Friday, June 7-Sunday, June 9, 17 deafblind Jews, ranging from ages 14 to 80, connected with each other and their heritage. The participants got to learn about and experience Judaism, virtually non-existent in their lives, in an environment that was 100 percent accessible to them.

“A deafblind person can be in a room with 500 people and unless someone communicates with him, he doesn’t know what is going on around them; he is totally isolated,” says Rabbi Eliezer Lederfeind, national director of Our Way/NJCD, an agency of the Orthodox Union that provides educational and social inclusion programs for the deaf and hard of hearing. “It was an opportunity for the Jewish deafblind to connect to people who understood them.”

Sigal Kuhl of Charleston, West Virginia, originally from Haifa, talks about the impact the experience had on her son, Liad, 14, the Deafblind Shabbaton’s youngest participant.

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Last year, we had a bar mitzvah celebration for Liad and put it on YouTube. Rabbi Liederfeind, saw it and contacted me. He told me about the Our Way program and the upcoming Shabbaton. Liad couldn’t wait to meet other Jewish deafblind people.

The doctors determined that Liad was deaf and blind when he was six-months-old, due to a virus I contracted 32 weeks into my pregnancy. His balance was also affected, so he also can’t walk and uses a wheelchair to get around. Liad loves to interact, but most people can’t communicate with him. It’s very isolating. I thought the Shabbaton would be a great opportunity for his two younger brothers as well. It’s important for them to see that their brother is important and to do everything possible to include him.

We felt so welcomed; you could really feel how they cared about our coming. Each deafblind person had an SSP (the Support Services Providers are trained paraprofessionals who, along with interpreting, foster interaction between deafblind individuals and inform them of their surroundings.) They had to describe everything with their hands. It’s very tiring. But, they did it with such passion. There were even deaf and hard of hearing people helping those who were both deaf and blind. Here are people who have disabilities and they are able to provide a priceless service.

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Liad signs with his SSP Hannah Patterson.

He constantly had someone interested in talking with him, joking with him, asking him about his life. I would hear him on the other side of the room laughing. He was super-happy and super-engaged all the time. He was celebrated for who he is.

The theme of the Shabbaton was Israel. Coming from a community where I’m the only Israeli, I really appreciated it. So did my children; it strengthened their identity to meet other people who love Israel. The organizers highlighted the country’s history and culture in so many ways and activities. They created a huge tactile map of Israel that took up several tables; you could feel the borders and the shapes of all the regions. There was a leader at each table. We got a “tour” of five cities that were indicated in large print and braille, describing the location and personality of each place. Liad was able to feel Haifa, my hometown.

We also learned the details of what it is to live as a Jew: why we wash our hands before bread, and why we say the blessing, what makes something kosher. Friday, the whole family made a challah, shaping it and braiding it. Then we got to bring it to the Shabbat table. Liad loved it. He signed, “Wonderful! My challah!”

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Liad shapes challah with his mother.

It was sad to leave and go back to our daily struggles. When you have a child with disabilities, you feel very isolated; you can’t go many places; you cannot play sports like other kids. Instead of feeling always on the outside, Liad was at the heart of the group. He felt important; people wanted to communicate with him and be with him. He was so happy and comfortable. He was with his own element, his people.

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Liad (right, in wheelchair) dances with the men following Havdallah.

We try to stay connected with the people we met there. Some of the interpreters replaced their picture on Facebook with a photo of themselves with Liad. I guess it meant a lot to them too – to meet him and experience his delicious personality. I promised Liad that in a year, if we can, we will go back and meet them again. I would go in a heartbeat.

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The Deafblind Shabbaton was sponsored by JADE: Jewish Advocates for Deaf Engagement (a program of the Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education), OU Our Way (through a generous donation by Lawrence and Donna Ludwig), the Richman Family Foundation, DMMMedia, Vital Signs, Deaf Studies Department at Towson University, and Hearing and Speech Agency.