Third Shabbaton for the Jewish Deafblind to Be Held 6/7-9 in Baltimore

30 May 2013


Scene from a past Shabbaton: Deafblind people communicate in a variety of manners. Fingerspelling, in which words are spelled out letter by letter and tactile signing where the deafblind individuals uses their hands to feel signs representing words and concepts, 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.

Three years ago, a one-of-a-kind Shabbaton was funded by the OU’s Our Way and the Baltimore Center for Jewish Education, and planned by a small group of committed professionals and volunteers to reach out to often overlooked members of the community: people who are Jewish and Deafblind. The weekend—geared toward participants above the age of 14 with both hearing and vision loss—provided a fully accessible Shabbat experience with opportunities for Jewish learning, and empowered participants to begin creating a Jewish Deafblind network.

The experience was so positive that the Shabbaton has become an annual event to look forward to. This year’s Shabbaton will take place from Friday, June 7-Sunday, June 9 (Shabbat Parshat Korach) at the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center, 5425 Mt. Gilead Road in Reisterstown, MD (outside of Baltimore). The Shabbaton is sponsored by Mr. and Mrs. Larry Lustig of New York, in memory of Phyllis Etowsky.

Seventeen Deafblind participants are expected to attend from Israel and across the United States, including: Peotone and Skokie, IL; Baltimore and Rockville, MD; New York; Philadelphia; Columbus, OH; Seattle and Shoreline, WA; and Washington, DC.

Our Way, under the direction of Rabbi Eliezer Lederfiend, is the division for the Jewish deaf and hard of hearing of the National Jewish Council for Disabilities (NJCD), an agency of the Orthodox Union.

The Shabbaton for Deafblind people is also sponsored by Baltimore-based JADE (a program of the Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education) with the support of NCSY (the international youth movement of the OU); Silver Spring-based Vital Signs; and DM Multimedia, Deaf Studies Program at Towson University, and The Hearing and Speech Agency, all based in Baltimore.

“The Shabbaton is an opportunity to grow and learn through each other, sharing the common background of being Jewish and Deafblind,” stated Shabbaton Co-Chair Sheryl Eisenberg Michalowski, who is deaf, and works as a deaf liaison/legal assistant for the Eisenberg and Baum law firm in New York City. “Isolation is a big challenge for Deafblind individuals and the Shabbaton is an opportunity to build resources, network and be inspired in a Jewish context.”

Creating a Deafblind-friendly Shabbaton environment requires that each participant have one or two SSPs (Support Service Provider). The SSP is a person who provides a variety of support services—including guiding, describing, personal assistance, and sometimes interpreting—with the ultimate goal of enhancing independence. They use a variety of methods to communicate with their individual consumers. Additionally, some of the planning committee members and workshop presenters are deaf and Deafblind individuals.

Scene from a past Shabbaton: A series of presenters (some of whom were deaf, some of whom were hearing and sighted) led discussions on various aspects of Judaism. 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, 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.”

All materials will be in large print and Braille; classes and services will be led by deaf rabbis David Kastor and Fred Friedman, both of Baltimore. Dr. Sheryl Cooper, Shabbaton co-chair and coordinator of the Deaf Studies Program at Towson University, described, “As prayer services are held, one of the rabbis will sign the English translations of the tefillot (prayers) for the interpreters to understand before interpreting the words into the hands of the person with whom they are working. It’s quite meaningful for the participants to be together with other Jewish Deafblind people and feel part of a group.”

The Shabbaton will include other Jewish ritual activities in sign language, such as candle lighting, Kiddush, and Havdallah.

Committee members chose “Israel” as a central theme for the weekend to build a foundation of knowledge among participants with the hopes that this group will travel together there; several workshops throughout Shabbat will focus on the theme.

“Most of the Deafblind participants have never been to Israel before,” shared Yael Zelinger of Baltimore, Shabbaton co-chair and coordinator of JADE. “Building on the desire for meaningful and social opportunities for Jewish Deafblind people, we hope to raise the funds for a fully-accessible experience in order to fulfill their dream of going as a group, with interpreters and SSPs.”

For further information on the Shabbaton, visit .

OU | Enhancing Jewish Life