Jul 12, 2012
Being a Deaf Lubavitcher
Yehoshua Soudakoff shares his life story: The suspicions during childhood, learning with a deaf Rosh Yeshiva and becoming Lubavitch.
By Yehoshua Soudakoff - N'shei Chabad Newsletter
My parents didn't see it coming.
It was on a warm May evening that I was delivered into the loving hands of my parents. We lived in the heart of the Los Angeles Jewish community, within walking distance of most of our extended family. My mother eagerly looked forward to enrolling me in the local Jewish school in a few years. Though my parents weren't strictly observant of Jewish tradition, they felt comfortable interacting with the Jewish community and identified with it.
Both my father and mother had no doubts that I could hear. After all, they were the only members of their respective families who were deaf.
A few weeks later, while a loud lawnmower worked its way past the window of the room we sat in, my parents and grandparents noticed that I didn't react at all to the noise. Could he be deaf? After a visit to the doctor, their suspicions were confirmed. I was deaf.
My parents' lives were turned upside down. They had to begin a search for a school that would meet my educational needs. They sought speech therapists and met with various teachers. In later years, my parents had two more children, my siblings Michael and Rachel, both of whom were also deaf.
My parents were later tested for the Connexin 26 gene, and they both have it. This gene causes deafness in children.
Soon my parents made a tough decision: we moved to another (non-Jewish) neighborhood, so that we all could attend the local school that provided a program for deaf children. Naturally, this meant that our involvement with the Jewish community declined somewhat. Though we continued to keep a kosher home and have weekly Shabbos dinners, my family increasingly identified more with the deaf community than with the mainstream Jewish community.
As my siblings and I grew up, we were fortunate to have access to Judaism in the form of my mother's non-profit organization – Jewish Deaf Community Center. It was established in 1991 (the year I was born) and provided a variety of Jewish educational functions: Chanukah parties, Rosh Hashanah services, Pesach community seders, trips to the Jewish museum, monthly kosher dinners, and so on. The best part about all this was that it was all uniquely geared to the needs of the Jewish deaf community. All programs were conducted fully in American Sign Language (ASL). My mother brought in deaf rabbis and lay leaders from out of state, and I was able to communicate directly with these people.
Then came my bar mitzvah. I learned Hebrew through a tutor and practiced my leining with a speech therapist. The result was that on my bar mitzvah day at the Kosel in Yerushalayim, I was able to have a typical Israeli bar mitzvah, just like every other bar mitzvah kid there.
This ignited a spark within me. I decided that I would not put all this learning to waste. Instead of throwing away all the hard work I had put into this special day (as many others unfortunately have done), I wanted to continue to grow in my Judaism.
After a year of attending a local public high school near my home, I had had enough. I wanted to be in a real yeshivah. Yeshivas Nefesh Dovid in Toronto, an international yeshivah and the only high school for Jewish deaf bochurim, was my next destination. A small program that works in conjunction with a much larger regular yeshivah, the school was the perfect environment for me to thrive.
I learned from the other bochurim exactly how to be Jewish, and our (deaf) Rosh Yeshivah, HaRav Chaim Tzvi Kakon, served as a role model for us all. We knew that it wasn't beyond our grasp to be true bnei Torah, because we had one standing in front of our class every day. Even some of the rebbeim were deaf.
I was in Toronto for three short years, and by the end, I felt much more comfortable within the Jewish community. This led me to consider joining another yeshivah, and that's how I found myself back in my hometown, studying at Yeshivas Ohr Elchonon Chabad.
How did I come to identify myself with Chabad? When I came to the yeshivah in Toronto (which isn't affiliated with Chabad at all), the other bochurim asked me, "What are you?" Some of them were Sefardi, others were Ashkenazi, and yet others were Chassidishe. Since I had just recently begun to daven in the Chabad House near my house, I said, "I'm a Lubavitcher!" And the label stuck. This is perhaps an excellent illustration of the importance of starting on the right foot – whatever we do at the beginning sets the tone for what comes afterwards.
When I came back to Los Angeles, I realized that I had far more Jewish knowledge than the average Jewish deaf person. The yeshivah in which I learned in Toronto has only been around for a few years; where had Jewish deaf boys gone to before then? From where was the deaf community supposed to learn Torah?
Being a deaf person is much more than not being able to hear. It often bothers me when people focus on my hearing condition. Yes, it's true that the lack of hearing is the identifying mark that separates me from other people. But being a deaf person means so much more than that. The "deaf world" offers a complete and intricate language (ASL), cultural nuances, and a unique outlook on life. Shouting louder or gesturing when communicating with me completely bypasses these ingrained elements of my identity, and it does them no justice.
It was for all of these reasons that I embarked on a new project to serve the Jewish deaf community. Working with several other people, I started a website that would provide educational resources for Jewish deaf people – Jewish Deaf Multimedia (www.jewishdeafmm.org). A few initial videos led to a weekly outpouring of parshah videos, and today we have over thirty videos in just little more than a year of production. Each and every video utilizes ASL and is fully captioned in English, for the benefit of those who don't know ASL well. We appointed a deaf rabbi (Rabbi Fred Friedman of Baltimore, Maryland) to preview each video before its release, to ensure our information content was accurate.
Accompanying these videos on the website is also a blog that addresses issues of Jewish importance to the Jewish deaf community, with an emphasis on the practical deed (as the Rebbe stressed time and time again). We produced a "Synagogue Survival Guide for the Deaf Jew" – a user-friendly handbook for Jewish deaf people who want to attend synagogue services.
From the outset, it was clear that a presence on the internet was sorely needed. Jewish deaf people are scattered all over the world (and our international email subscription list attests to this). Jewish deaf programs and events – though crucial – would most likely not attract more than a few dozen people at a time. Largely unaffiliated and lacking in Jewish knowledge, the Jewish deaf community would either be uninterested or unable to participate in these programs due to conflicting priorities.
The internet broke through all of these barriers. Anybody can anonymously access our videos and other resources at any time of the day from the comforts of their personal computer. It did not matter if they lived in the heart of Brooklyn, high up in the Colorado Rockies or in the Australian Outback.
And then we partnered with Chabad.org to widen our audience even further. Some have asked me, "Why can't deaf people just read the articles and watch the subtitled Rebbe videos available on Chabad.org? Why ‘reinvent the wheel' and produce similar content in ASL? After all, don't deaf people know English too?"
The answer is unfortunate. After centuries of miscommunication and misunderstandings, deaf people have come to develop their own community, language, and culture. Just as we Jews pride ourselves on being able to maintain a unique identity, and we are resistant to assimilation, so, too, is the deaf community. When given the choice between living comfortably, among people we understand and who understand us, or "senselessly" giving it all up for the frustration of trying to survive in a strange world, we deaf people naturally choose the former. And we do it in a way that ensures a barrier between culturally deaf people and those who don't sign in ASL.
In Jewish terms, this has resulted in a wide gap between the deaf community and the frum world. This is especially true because the frum community puts a heavy emphasis on hearing – be it attending shiurim, listening to the reading of the megillah, or davening b'tzibbur. So over the years, we have slowly allowed our deaf brothers and sisters to fall through the cracks and find support elsewhere. They have left our synagogues and programs because they felt bored and isolated amidst the chatter and speeches and rituals that characterize communal Judaism. What sane person would willingly put himself in a situation where he perpetually feels lost?
In addition, Jewish deaf people are often mistakenly told from childhood (more in the past than today) by well-meaning parents and rabbis that they were exempt from the mitzvos because they are halachically considered "chereshim." Of course, this is a subtle form of permission, if not encouragement, for them to leave the Jewish community, G-d forbid.
(I recently heard from a reliable source that Rabbi Zalman Shimon Dvorkin z"l paskened that today's deaf people are not considered "chereshim"; there is obviously a huge difference between the illiterate and uncommunicative "deaf-mutes" of the past and the mainstream, communicative and intelligent deaf people of today.)
So why would we expect some deaf people to benefit from what Chabad.org has to offer? That would be akin to expecting the typical American public school student to be able to relate to the intricate analysis of the Pnei Yehoshua on a difficult Rashi. Even if one translates the Pnei Yehoshua's words, the emotional connection is still lacking.
That's why Jewish Deaf Multimedia is offering something totally different. We're providing Torah in a native tongue (hand?) and addressing issues through deaf eyes. There is no doubt that many deaf people have discovered their neshamah's connection to the Torah and Hashem only through these videos. Our website has a page with short blurbs from many members of the deaf community, showing their enthusiasm and support for this ambitious project.
In addition to running the website, I have also become involved in helping arrange various events for the Jewish deaf community. In fact, as I write this, I am on a plane flying back to Los Angeles from Rochester, NY. I was a guest speaker for the "First Ever International Jewish Deaf Purim Shabbaton" that took place in the quiet but sizeable Jewish community there. Over 30 people attended, and we had megillah readings both at night and during the day.
Throughout the weekend, I was reminded again and again just how important it is to organize events geared for the deaf community. I cannot imagine these people would have enjoyed themselves as much had it been a regular shabbaton. To keep up during an event with the help of a sign language interpreter is completely different than being an active participant in a deaf, ASL-conducted event. And I honestly think the latter enriches in a way the former would never do.
The Rebbe spoke at a farbrengen once about the special quality of hafatzah through Braille. I have no doubt he feels the same way about Torah being spread around the world in ASL for the deaf community. It is just another step in bringing the world closer to Yemos HaMoshiach, when "the world will be filled with knowledge of G-d, as waters cover the sea." Though everybody will hear after Moshiach comes, why should we wait to learn Torah till then?