OU Presents First-Ever Shabbaton for Jewish Deafblind Community

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24 May 2010

Friday evening, as the sun sets, it dispels the aggravations of the week and brings with it shalva and kedusha; that is, an easiness of mind and holiness. The chazzan (cantor) leads Lecha Dodi, while Shalom Aleichem and Aishet Chayil are sung at home. The glow of Shabbat candles. Would welcoming the Sabbath be as embraceable if we were unable to physically experience it with all five senses? The first-ever Deafblind Shabbaton Experience, which was organized by the Orthodox Union in late April at the Pearlstone Retreat in Reisterstown (Baltimore), MD, proved it most certainly could be, and it most certainly was.

Although scattered throughout North America there are several organizations that service Jewish deaf or Jewish blind, there are none for Jewish Deafblind people. As an effort to reach out to this overlooked community, Our Way, the outreach program for Jewish deaf of the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, an agency of the Orthodox Union, received funding from the Center for Jewish Education in Baltimore with a JEEP (Jewish Education Enhancement Project) grant to make the Shabbaton possible. This was a huge occasion, a hopeful beginning of further acknowledging the abilities and needs of this part of the Jewish community. Committee member Bets Wohl of Washington, D.C. is deafblind herself and was able to influence many of the participants to come.


Three deafblind women and five deafblind men, ages 18 through their 60s came together from across America to participate in the Shabbaton. Each participant was provided with their own SSPs (Support Service Provider) to provide the visual and auditory information necessary to fully participate. “It wasn’t a younger person’s Shabbaton,” shared Rabbi Eliezer Lederfeind (first row, second from left), Director of Our Way, “Age made no difference of any kind.”

Each participant was provided with his or her own SSPs (Support Service Provider) to provide the visual and auditory help necessary to fully participate. “There were eight Helen Kellers” declared Rabbi Eliezer Lederfeind, Director of Our Way, “Each one was different, and each has a different life.” Rabbi Lederfeind noted that most of these people were originally sighted but lost their vision through Usher’s Syndrome — a genetic condition in which the person is genetically deaf and has a gene for Retinitis Pigmentosa, an eye condition that starts with night blindness, then tunnel vision, and deteriorates to the degree that the person may become blind.

Not everyone was completely deaf or completely blind. According to Dr. Sheryl Cooper of Baltimore, co-coordinator of the event, “Some of the participants were able to function quite independently, while others needed many SSPs rotating to support them.” All materials were provided in large print or Braille (including prayer books).


Deafblind people communicate in a variety of manners. Fingerspelling, in which words are spelled out letter by letter and tactile signing, in which complete words are represented into their palms are two of the many ways, along with a variety of assistive learning devices and technology that produces Braille. Steven Frank (L) of Rockville, MD is shown in conversation with Jeff Bohrman of Columbus, OH – both of whom are totally deafblind.

The excitement of Shabbat could be felt from the beginning. “It was a treat for them to be together with other Jewish deafblind and feel part of a group” said Dr. Cooper. Friday night, the women lit Shabbat candles with assistance; for one of the participants, Dorothy Walt of Seattle, it was her first time having full access to light Shabbat candles. Rabbi David Kastor, of Baltimore, who is deaf but sighted, led a workshop on Jewish artifacts that a person can feel, such as a mezuzah case and parchment, and the strings on tzitzit to better understand their significance. Havdallah services were led by Rabbi Fred Friedman, of Baltimore, who is also deaf but sighted. Rabbi Friedman would sign the English translations of the tefillot (prayers) for the interpreters to understand before transferring the words into the hands of the person whom they assisted.


A series of presenters (some of whom were deaf, some of whom were hearing and sighted) led discussions on various aspects of Judaism. Topics ranged from Foundations of Judaism, Parsha of the Week, and Shavuot, to How to Pray. The participants also brought many of their own questions to engage in deeper level discussions with their peers and guides. Baila Weiss (L), of New York, NY who is deafblind, has her back to the presenter (who is not shown) in order that her SSP, Joyce Dworsky-Srour of Silver Spring, MD is able to follow. Ironically, Joyce is shown with her eyes closed to be able to focus on the words of the presenter and to block out other distractions. According to Dr. Sheryl Cooper, “Joyce was signing, while Baila was feeling the shapes, locations, and movements of Joyce’s signing to ascertain the meaning.” To Joyce’s right is deafblind Steven Frank of Rockville, MD.

Saturday night, participants and SSPs enjoyed rolling out their own dough and forming their own challahs. The volunteers came from two backgrounds: those who were professionally trained to work with the deaf, thus, this was their first time working with those deafblind; but they were Jewish and were able to communicate the appropriate terminology. There were also volunteers who were skilled in working with the deafblind but were not Jewish, thus, they had the challenge of a cultural barrier to overcome. “The volunteers picked up each area that they lacked more beautifully than imagined,” said Sheryl Cooper. Eager to help, SSPs drove in from Richmond and flew in from Las Vegas to join the solid support system that already exists in Baltimore.


Participants make challah Saturday night. According to Rabbi Lederfeind, “Everything I have learned about programs for the deaf is completely irrelevant here. The deafblind community is really amazing. It’s the challenge of being isolated even in a room of 500 people. The ability of these people to overcome their disabilities shows the power of the neshama–the soul. It shows how people can grow.”

Wrapping up the Shabbaton on Sunday morning brought an empowering moment to the men, as Friday night had given to the women. Three men were assisted in the mitzvah of putting on tefillin. “They were so excited that it really made them feel Jewish. They had never had this real tactile connection to Judaism,” said Dr. Cooper. “One of the men, who has a Ph.D. in pharmacology, had never had the opportunity to put on tefillin before.”


“Every person was really a star,” expressed Rabbi Lederfeind. Putting on tefillin are: (first photo) Jeff Bohrman of Columbus, OH with SSP Stephen Frank of Baltimore; (second photo) Steven Frank of Rockville, MD with Rabbi Fred Friedman of Baltimore.

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