Since the 1960s, Our Way, a program of the Orthodox Union, has been establishing initiatives on behalf of Jewish deaf throughout North America. Participants have included thousands of deaf individuals – young and old, observant and nonobservant – communicating on different levels in 18 states and several Canadian provinces.
As the director of Our Way, I have worked with these groups for over thirty years, utilizing my skills to communicate with them and to help bring Torah into their lives.
Yet all of this experience did not prepare me for a most extraordinary Shabbaton, held not long ago in Baltimore, for Deafblind. It has to be one of the highlights of both my professional and personal lives.
Working together with a committee of highly professional and dedicated volunteers, we combined to present a first-ever Shabbaton for Jewish Deafblind. The event was held at the Pearlstone Retreat through a generous grant from the Baltimore Council for Jewish Education.
Most of the participants were originally sighted but lost their vision through Ushers Syndrome -a genetic disorder in which a 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 becomes blind. Like Helen Keller, the most famous Deafblind, they are not born without sight or hearing. Advertisement
A Deafblind person is not just deaf or not just blind. He or she is a different creation. Culturally, deaf rely mostly on vision while blind rely on hearing. Deafblind people rely on “touch.”
A Deafblind person sitting in a room with 500 other people can feel very isolated unless someone is directly communicating with him. In working with a group of deaf, usually one interpreter is enough. With Deafblind, depending on their vision loss they each need a personal support service provider who is directly in communication with them, not only in terms of what is being said but also what is happening around them. Whenever possible, support service providers witch off every 20 minutes.
One of the most fascinating sessions we had during the Shabbaton was led by Rabbi David Kastor, a regular at our traditional Our Way Shabbatonim. He himself is deaf and is often the Deaf Torah Scholar at these programs. Rabbi Kastor wanted the Deafblind to connect with mitzvot. After explaining mezuzah, talit and Kiddush, he had the participants “feel” the mitzvah. He distributed a mezuzah, mezuzah case, talit, and Kiddush cup. This was followed by their lining up and entering a doorway. They found the mezuzah and kissed it as they walked through. They also proceeded to feel a sefer Torah.
Jeremy came from California. Unlike most of the other Deafblind participants, he first became blind and is now slowly losing his hearing. He also uses a wheelchair. Prior to the Shabbaton I was in e-mail communication with him (he has technological devices that enable him to read e-mail and books). Considering that he is from a non-observant home I was amazed at his halachic questions on whether he is allowed to use his Deafblind Communicator on Shabbat.
When I asked him how he knows so much about halacha, he responded, “I’m blind, going deaf and stuck in a wheelchair. The only thing I can do is read. I love Jewish books!”
What moved me most about this Shabbaton was the level of simchat hachaim (love of life) each of the Deafblind expressed. Before attending the Shabbaton I expected to meet a group of depressed, challenged and frustrated individuals feeling little connection with “normal” daily life and certainly not with Judaism.
I was amazed at what I witnessed. The participants were very high functioning, questioning the rabbis at every session as they explained the weekly parsha. Passionate in their desire to understand Judaism and to access it, they were constantly communicating among themselves, with the deaf rabbis, and with all the committee members.
They were even able to laugh at themselves. On Shabbat afternoon we were scheduled to play Jewpardy, a trivia game based on Jewish questions about Torah, Jewish leaders, Israel, etc. The coordinator of the game explained there would be two teams. A bowl with pink and blue papers was to be passed around. Each Deafblind person would cover his eyes and randomly pick one color to decide which team he would be on. Suddenly, Dorothy, from the state of Washington, blurted out, “I’m blind why do I have to cover my eyes?!” After her words were translated, there was a roar of laughter.