How Do We Participate when Tradition Expects Us to Hear?

TasteJewish holidays mark moments in time in the story of a people. The traditions bind the past to the present — reminders of historical events as well as guides for present and future generations.

Sharing this information from generation to generation is an integral part of every holiday. For my parents, the weekly observance of Shabbat created an opportunity to sit down to a family dinner with their nine children – a weekly experience marked by lighting of the candles, saying the blessings over the wine and challah, and sharing a family dinner.

During the year, our Jewish heritage mandates attending synagogue to listen to the cantor sing those familiar tunes, reading the Megillah on Purim and loudly clanging the grogger (noisemaker) to blot out the name of Haman, taking turns reciting aloud from the Haggadah on Passover, and hearing the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah in synagogue. However, most of my religious memories center around the dining room table set for eleven.

The Jewish holidays are based on storytelling, and my upbringing would be described today as “hearing privileged.” There were no accessibility issues; I was able to connect to my Jewish heritage whenever and wherever I wanted. If I was unsure of the meaning or significance of specific traditions, I could easily inquire.

Our traditions involve all the senses. Some we view, others we taste, smell, touch and some require us to listen or hear. But what about my Deaf Jewish friends? What was their experience growing up in a hearing family? I had to know.

After interviewing several of my Deaf Jewish friends, raised in traditional Jewish, hearing families, I discovered many similarities in their experiences. They described the observance of Shabbat and holidays as boring, isolating and confusing at best, especially when forced to sit in synagogue for hours on end with no interpreter. The Hebrew language was incomprehensible, as were the meanings behind the rituals. One friend admitted to not even being aware that there was a Shofar on Rosh Hashanah until she became an adult. For her, the extent of the holiday involved dipping apples in the honey to symbolize a wish for a sweet new year.

Conversely, another of my friends remembers the way her mother would sign a particular song from the Haggadah each Passover. She developed warm feelings and memories about the rhythm of the signing, but admittedly did not understand the associations behind the words. The matzoh which is set aside wrapped in a piece of cloth and then hidden is called the Afikomen. All the children love looking for this piece of matzoh and can spend up to an hour doing so! My friend knew she was looking for a piece of matzoh and would get money if she found it, but never learned the reason behind this fun activity.

She is very is grateful for the weekly Sunday school for Deaf children which she attended, conducted in ASL. This school gave her the connection she sought and filled in the gaps of what was missing both in synagogue and at home. She creditsTemple Beth shalom in Flushing, Queens — which provides classes forDeaf Children from all over New York — for the strong Jewish roots she has today. Storytelling was alive in this school because of its approach to accessibility.

Some Deaf Jews became frustrated and eventually gave up on their Jewish community. Their spiritual needs were better met within the Deaf community rather than the community of their faith. With family seders or services inaccessible, rituals didn’t make sense and there was no deepening connection to these practices. However, when they became adults and craved some of the traditions they grew up with, it was Deaf Jewish organizations that gave them the connection they were missing.

Even Deaf Jews who are fortunate enough to be born into a Deaf family and therefore do have access to their heritage through sign language, still struggle within the larger Jewish community and feel that they are unable to be a truly active participant in their congregations.

shofarblowing1With the Jewish New Year approaching, I asked about accessibility in relation to the listening to the shofar, an integral piece of Rosh Hashanah. According to the Torah it is a mitzvah. an obligation or commandment, to hear  the shofar. Does this mean only hearing people would be able to fulfill this mitzvah? What if one cannot physically hear it?

Thankfully, times they are a changing. Now with a “handful” of Deaf Rabbis and congregations conducted in ASL or services which are accessible through an interpreter, HEARING the shofar comes in many forms. At Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in Northridge California, the Rabbi has gotten creative. Congregants all receive balloons before services. When the shofar is blown, the Deaf congregants who wish to “hear” the sound with their hands will hold the balloon and the vibrations of the shofar causes the balloons to vibrate. The “sound” differs for participants who are hard of hearing, Deaf, or have hearing aids or cochlear implants. At another congregation, a light goes on in the shofar each time the Ram’s horn is blown. At other services, Deaf people are permitted to go right up to the shofar and feel it with their hands or mouth.

Read this article about Deaf Rabbi Deborah Goldmann and Temple Beth Solomon, It is so inspiring to learn how the Rabbi leads her congregation on Rosh Hashanah. Or click on the radio show (for which, ironically, there are no captions) to see first-hand the experience of what “hearing” the shofar is like on Rosh Hashanah for some of these Deaf congregants.

Today, Deaf Jewish children have ample opportunity to experience a rich Jewish upbringing compared to those of previous generations. There are more Deaf Rabbis, Deaf Jewish camps, Deaf Jewish societies and foundations connecting Deaf Jews to their heritage. They are succeeding through Deaf culture, American Sign Language, technology and accessibility. That ability to participate in the traditions of Jewish holidays provides the Jewish Deaf community with the possibility to connect more deeply to their Jewish heritage and is proof of the importance of true community in the Jewish faith as a whole.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff will lead Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in Brooklyn this year. There is a link below to find out more details. I cannot wait to go and have an opportunity to sit in a congregation in a language accessible to Deaf Jews.


Town and Village Synagogue in the East Village in NYC provides interpreted services. Click below for the schedule during the high holidays.