A runaway bestseller back in the seventies opened with these wise words, “Life is hard.” I think we can give the Jewish singles’ update on that observation. Shidduchim is harder. The grueling dating process, the humiliating questions, the endless loneliness. It makes climbing Mt. Everest sound like a pleasant jaunt. Now imagine conducting life’s most important search without the ability to hear. Considering this painfully isolating predicament, it makes tragic sense that 60 % of Jewish deaf individuals intermarry, often out of desperation rather than indifference. But one man proved that with the powerful blend of compassion and drive, one can move even Mt Everest.
“Ninety-five percent of deaf people marry deaf people, and there are only about 10,000 Jewish deaf in the world. It’s a very limited population,” explains Rabbi Eliezer Lederfeind, the director and founder of Our Way/NJCD, a division of The Orthodox Union’s National Jewish Council for Disabilities. OU’s 35-year-strong mainstreaming program for the Jewish deaf community provides religious, social, and educational opportunities for this often isolated population
Rabbi Lederfeind broke open a world of marital possibility for this long overlooked community of Jews with the Jewish Deaf Singles Registry. He enlisted the aid of Shmuel and Rachel Landau, a deaf couple already active in the Jewish deaf community, and launched a matchmaking service via an international newsletter, featuring salient articles and a section reserved for personal ads. “We have been able to combat intermarriage, not by preaching to Jewish deaf singles, but by helping them to marry Jewish,” says Shmuel Landau. 20 years and 20 marriages later, the program continues to attract Jewish deaf singles anxious to meet their beshert (intended marriage partner). JDSR comprises singles of all ages, religious backgrounds, and communication modalities across the globe.
How the Registry Works
In Yiddish, we commonly refer to making a match as “redding a shidduch” (speaking a match). It seems the key to a successful match proposal rides on how effectively it is “spoken” or communicated. “There’s a tremendous need to give them the most effective venue in which to meet,” says Batya Jacob, Our Way program director. “They need a way to contact each other, no matter where they live, and that’s why the written registry works.”
Batya Jacob (third from right) meeting with the JDSR board
According to Mrs. Jacob, the JDSR newsletter reaches across the US and Canada and around the globe to Australia, France, Israel, England, and Austria. Readers receive announcements of upcoming events, recaps of past ones, as well as articles that clarify the keys to effective communication. “Communication is a big issue, because some of our members sign, some of them speak, and others do both,” says Mrs. Jacob. At once illuminating and pragmatic, the JDSR September issue features articles that offer ideas on optimal interaction, such as: “Dating Styles and Strategies,” “The Different Languages of Love,” and “Two Jews Can Still be a Mixed marriage,” written by Louis and Leah Caplan, a couple who met through the Registry, relating the rigors of making a marriage work when one comes from a Modern Orthodox home and the other, Reform. “All the articles assisting in the dating process are based on Torah values,” says Mrs. Jacob.
The Registry works much like newspaper personal ads, with the added and welcomed dimension of knowledgeable and concerned intermediaries – the JDSR administrators. Each ad contains the member’s ID number, city of residence, observance level, a brief description of him/herself, and the stats and qualities they are seeking in a mate. “The Registry is very diverse and as long as the person is halachically (according to Torah law) Jewish, we welcome their participation,” says Mrs. Jacob. The JDSR requires proof of Jewish status from each potential member. “We have a responsibility to our membership. If our goal is to make sure they are marrying Jewish, we have to make sure each participant is Jewish,” continues Mrs. Jacob. “It’s a huge amount of work, but when you see them marry each other, it’s worth every second.”
Shabbatonim Link JDSR with Hearing Community
In addition to sending out its regular newsletter, the program holds yearly Shabbat retreats in various US Jewish communities under the auspices of an OU affiliated synagogues. The JDSR staff arranges for a separate section in the synagogue for their members, so that they can follow the Shabbat services via a professional sign language interpreter. Our Way employs licensed Jewish interpreters, well versed in Judaism and Hebrew terms, through the National Interpreting Licensing Program. When needed, they request a private room to conduct a Beginners Minyan to accommodate the JDSR members who are unfamiliar with the Shabbat service. The program offers partial scholarships to members who live far from the retreats and can’t manage the travel expenses – making the difference between a deaf single attending or not. (JDSR welcomes donations to the scholarship fund.)
Wherever we hold a retreat, the rabbi of the community always asks us, ‘When can you come back?’
“The day is spent sharing in inspiring tefillah, festive Shabbat meals, and taking part in lively discussions on topics relevant to singles,” says Mrs. Jacob. “Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and people who never experienced Shabbat before come to our retreats.” Members fly in from across the country and around the globe, happy to meet other Jewish deaf singles and hoping to connect with their counterpart. “It is very difficult for me to find a religious girl,” shares Mordechai Weis, 28, a JDSR participant. “I’ve gone to two retreats so far. It’s frustrating since there are so many more men than women.” Batya Jacob says they would like to branch out and run retreats in other communities throughout the country. “Although a financial battle, it remains a major goal,” she says.
Apparently the JDSR members are not the only ones touched by these invigorating Shabbat get-togethers. “Communities enthusiastically volunteer their help and continue to open their doors and hearts to us. Whether it’s Baltimore, MD; Highland Park, NJ, White Plains, NY, or West Orange, NJ. wherever we hold a retreat, the rabbi of the community always asks us, ‘When can you come back?'”
JDSR also offers Sunday activities during the year in the New York metropolitan area, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Recent expeditions included Yeshiva University Museum and a bowling bash. These Sundays afford the group an opportunity for an enjoyable, stimulating day of cultural or recreational activities, and significant schmoozing with their Jewish deaf peers.
“We’re working on an extended retreat of 10 days in Israel with a projected date of 2006,” says Mrs. Jacob. “In addition to touring Israel, we plan to set up programs with deaf groups from Beer Sheva, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem. It’s an expensive proposition, so we’re looking for potential donors to support this vital effort, as well as looking into group flights and telling our members to start saving.”
Registry’s Heartening Success Stories
Every act of hishtadlus (effort) marks a success, for both the individuals placing their ads and the masterminds behind the JDSR. In the end, Hashem brings chason and kallah together with the Registry providing an excellent vehicle, delighting the Our Way staff with every new marriage.
Each JDSR coupling comes with a heartening story. A trans-Atlantic shidduch, brought together a woman from Dublin, Ireland and a man from Brooklyn, New York. After their first meeting, they both felt they “weren’t for each other”. Not long after their mutual dismissal of the match, Ms. Ireland and Mr. New York began a correspondence through the Registry. “Barry and I started to writing, not knowing who each other was,” says Deborah Spindel, a former participant. “We decided to exchange photographs and to our surprise, we realized that we had met before.” The happy JDSR couple and their children reside in Queens, New York.
“One of our couples attending a retreat liked each other, but decided not to pursue dating because they were too different in terms of religious observance and philosophy,” says Mrs. Jacob. “Leah became a board member of JDSR and I was also asked to join,” says Louis Caplan. “We found that we enjoyed working together, and had the same outlook on a lot of things and a friendship developed.” Although they still harbored some nervousness about their disparate religious upbringings, the Caplan’s chose to marry and commit themselves to working out their differences. They live in Virginia with their two children and have become leaders in the Jewish deaf community there, initiating an active Our Way chapter and hosting Shabbatons for the program.
After each retreat, the JSDR facilitates communication between the two interested parties by arranging for them to see each other over Shabbat at a Jewish community convenient to both singles. Those that meet through the Registry personal ads also call upon the Landaus for technical as well as personal assistance, to encourage the progress of a potential match. “The most important thing is that we show people that we care, by working to give them these vital opportunities,” says Shmuel Landau.
Our Way continues to enrich the quality of life for individuals throughout the Jewish deaf community. By opening up previously locked doors of possibility, the program continues to help these men and women lead fuller Jewish lives, as they meet and enjoy each other’s company, learn about their rich Torah heritage, build committed Jewish families, and feel an integral part of Klal Yisrael.
For more information, email Landau9@optonline.net or write to JDSR PO Box 2005, NY, NY 10159-2005.)
Bayla Sheva Brenner is Senior Writer in the Communications and Marketing Department at the OU.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.