Paying It Forward for Omaha’s Deaf Jewish Community

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29 Jun 2011

Her name is Lina Kogan. For the past twenty year she’s been living in Omaha, but prior to that she lived in various places along the east coast, including New York and Maryland. She’s well traveled and loves to study different cultures; she has a particular affinity for Israel.

What makes her story special isn’t the fact that she was born and then raised in Minsk, Belarus for the first eight years of her life. What makes her story interesting isn’t the fact that her family immigrated out of Russia because they wanted religious freedom (in Minsk, Lina’s family was not permitted to attend synagogue services). What makes Lina’s story truly unique is that Lina, who was born deaf, was able to receive both a special education for the deaf/hard of hearing as well as a Jewish education once her family arrived in the Midwest and settled in the town of Omaha. As a teenager, she participated in her synagogue’s youth group with the assistance of an interpreter and was able to interact socially with others her age via the many local synagogue activities. Lina, who spent time as a young adult working and studying on the east coast, briefly attended Gallaudet University for the Deaf, and eventually returned to Omaha to put down roots. Today she and Roman Pitman (who is also deaf and emigrated from St. Petersburg, Russia) have a ten-month old son named Ruben. Lina continues to be active in adult Jewish education classes; she earned certifications as a CID (Central Institute for the Deaf) Interpreter and infant massage therapist. But what really sparks Lina’s passion these days is to ensure the creation of Jewish religious and social programming that is specifically geared for the deaf/hard of hearing, as a supplement to interpreters when mainstreaming into existing programs.

To that end, Lina has established Omaha’s connections with the Orthodox Union’s Our Way Program. Our Way is a branch of OU’s NJCD (National Jewish Council on Disabilities) in cooperation with Yachad and NCSY. Established in 1969, Our Way for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is dedicated to providing resources, services, and social programming for the Jewish population with hearing issues. Our Way/NJCD opens the doors for the deaf and hard of hearing in all areas of life: religious, social, educational, and vocational.

Our Way/NJCD sponsors Shabbatons (Weekend Retreats), selected prayers illustrated in sign language publications, educational support and resource services for the deaf and hard of hearing communities as well as trips to Israel and singles programs for young adults who are looking to find their future life partner.

As Lina describes it, the Our Way programs which she first encountered as a teenage in Baltimore, had a powerful impact on her life, “I feel, WOW, this a place I really belong, it’s a deaf Jewish world, a completely different feeling from being in a hearing synagogue setting where there’s still a sense of isolation and aloneness.”

According to Lina, Omaha currently serves 5 Jewish deaf/hard of hearing individuals, but that population is expanding. For this reason, Lina was pleased to act as hostess to Omaha’s first Our Way Family Shabbaton which took place June 17-28 at Beth Israel Synagogue. Rabbi Eliezer Lederfeind, Director of Our Way, led a key session on “How to Pray, What to Say.” Back by popular demand, Rabbi David Kastor, served as the Deaf Scholar-in-Residence, discussing the “The Three Weeks,” in addition to other workshops, along with a question and answer session.

Rabbi Kastor is an important side story here: Born deaf, he attended deaf school and Sunday Hebrew School until his bar mitzvah. Ultimately he graduated from Gallaudet University for the Deaf with a B.A. in Computer Science and married an Israeli woman, Tchia, who is also deaf. Rabbi Kastor eventually earned rabbinical ordination from Ner Israel in Baltimore and went on to establish the Ahavas Israel School for the Deaf in Frederick, Maryland because of his profound passion for Jewish education. Rabbi Kastor has worked for the OU as a Regional Representative for over two decades and is a frequently asked to serve as scholar-in-residence.

“Jewish deaf people like to see deaf role models in general and enjoy the same mode of communication such as sign language,” Rabbi Kastor explained, “Also, they are thirsty to learn Torah so much and I clearly enjoy teaching them. It’s important to recognize that the deaf/hard of hearing enjoy themselves by socializing with other deaf Jewish people.”

Our Way’s one-of-a-kind Shabbaton experience, although a first in Omaha, has previously brought joyous Shabbaton programs to communities all over North America, open to members of the Jewish community from all backgrounds. Materials and prayer services are always provided in American Sign Language and deaf advisors are on hand to help create a meaningful, traditional Shabbat experience.


Omaha’s Friday-Saturday event included three delicious meals and snacks, interpreted services in the synagogue, a beginner’s minyan, child care, program sessions, and an opportunity to join together with others to live and learn about Judaism. Saturday night culminated with the showing of the popular documentary “Ingelore” about a young deaf girl and her family who escaped the Nazis during World War II. The film was shown in sign, voice and captions.

In Lina’s opinion, “The event was very successful in my home town. Beth Israel’s Rabbi Jonathan Gross, now wants to become proficient in sign language and has already started learning how to spell. He plans to contact our JCC with the intent of setting up classes for the signing of Jewish words. I have offered to teach. It is surprising how few hearing Jewish interpreters there are in the Midwest; there are many who live on the east coast. In Omaha, for example, we only have one. Our Shabbaton was also attended by the only hearing Jewish interpreter from St. Louis.

It seemed to me that Rabbi Kastor enjoyed Omaha very much, especially our large community facilities. We had a wonderful time, I will never forget this weekend, so full of special memories and the way we were able to influence and educate the hearing Jewish community. They were able to learn and experience our deaf community throughout the services via the use of sign language and an interpreter.”

Rabbi Kastor summed it up, “Lina and Roman were wonderful hosts for the Shabbaton. The program was a good start. Hopefully we’ve planted a seed in Omaha for future programs to come with Hashem’s help. We learned a lot about that area and are expanding on ideas that are intended to reach more of the deaf Jewish population in surrounding the cities.”

To learn more about the Orthodox Union’s National Jewish Council for Disabilities (NCJD), Yachad, or Our Way Programs, please visit:

Yachad | The National Jewish Council for Disabilities, Our Way Programs for the Deaf/Hard of Hearing, Our Way Resources. To register for programs please contact Batya at 212-613-8127 or

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.