B’not mitzvah in ASL a milestone for deaf women

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B’not mitzvah Marcia Ann Zisman (left) and Stephanie Raye Summers (right) with their teacher Hillel Goldberg. Photo by Kelly Doucet Simpson

By Robert Weinstock

Historically, many Jews who are deaf and hard of hearing did not have linguistic or cultural access to a Jewish education. This was the case for Stephanie Raye Summers, 55, and Marcia Ann Zisman, 65, deaf women from predominantly deaf families.

Summers, a financial adviser from Germantown, grew up with Jewish deaf parents and a younger hearing sister. Zisman, a retired federal employee from Rockville, grew up with Jewish deaf parents and a younger hearing brother. Both faced limited opportunities to attend religious school, to learn Hebrew and to participate in mainstream Jewish life.

Their parents were involved in the Washington area’s Jewish deaf community, however. In particular, Zisman’s parents were among the founders in 1973 of the Washington Society of Jewish Deaf (WSJD). And both women were active in Hillel at Gallaudet University, later joining WSJD.

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Neither had a bat mitzvah. For a long time, Zisman says, she was resigned to this reality. But Summers says she felt that a piece of her life was missing, a feeling that was magnified when her twin sons, one hearing and one deaf, celebrated their b’nai mitzvah nine years ago. She resolved to have a bat mitzvah someday.

In 2019 and 2020, WSJD hosted b’nai mitzvah of the deaf sons of members Sarah Rosen Strom and David Strom, at Rockville’s Temple Beth Ami. Summers and Zisman were there, and they found the two ceremonies beautiful and accessible. It’s what they needed to get them to begin studying in earnest for their own b’not mitzvah.

Summers and Zisman began to meet with deaf lay leaders Stephen Weiner, a retired Gallaudet University faculty member, and Hillel Goldberg, a retired Gallaudet staff member.

Toward the end of their studies, they met virtually with two deaf rabbis, Rebecca Dubowe of Moses Montefiore Temple in Bloomington, Ill., and Darby Leigh of Karem Shalom in Concord, Mass.

Summers and Zisman studied the liturgy and their Torah portion, Re’eh, or “See!” The read and discussed Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” and Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy.”

Finally, they agreed on a date — only to have the pandemic force them to postpone. Last summer, with the pandemic in abeyance, they set Aug. 28 as the date. But their path to becoming a Jewish adult still had some surprises.

A few days before the 28th, their venue informed them that they could no longer host the service.

Zisman enlisted the assistance of a neighbor, the writer Sarah Sheila Birnbach. Within hours, Birnbach secured the small sanctuary of her synagogue, Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, in Bethesda. Crisis averted.

“Is it really here?” Summers recalls thinking on the morning of the 28th. “Is it really happening?”

Those who gathered were both deaf and hearing, signing and non-signing. Zisman and Summers led the assembly through a traditional morning service, and interpreted their Torah portions and their reading of the two books. They were joined by family members for the blessings over bread and wine.

The hour-long service was conducted wholly in American Sign Language, with voice interpretation for non-signing hearing guests and captions on the Zoom broadcast.There was no cantor and no music; however, Summers and Zisman signed and the voice interpreters followed suit, providing a parallel rhythm and cadence for the hearing audience.

The congregation that day included 100 people, 60 in person and 40 via Zoom. Elizabeth Stone of Silver Spring said that the service was special for her because she had full access to it in American Sign Language. “I was grateful to be able to witness this ceremony, and to see the Jewish deaf community come together to make it possible,” she said.

Kimberly Zisman of Frederick, Marcia Zisman’s niece, wrote an email, praising her aunt’s “hard work and dedication. It’s clear that this process was a significant period of reflection and growth, and that’s always a beautiful thing to witness. It inspired me, it really did.”

“This has always been something Stephanie has wanted to do,” wrote Summers’ sister, Ingrid Wade. “It was wonderful to watch her achieve this life milestone.” What’s next? Zisman and Summers say they plan to continue their Jewish studies. “This is just the beginning,” Summers says.

Several of their deaf guests have expressed interest in having their own bar or bat mitzvah under the auspices of Washington Society of Jewish Deaf. And some of the male guests who already had a bar mitzvahs are thinking about doing it again at age 83.

Larry Zisman, Marcia Zisman’s cousin, said the planning for the ASL coming-of-age ceremony didn’t skimp on the small details.

“I liked that at the end of the prayers, the captioning showed, ‘Let us sign Amen,’ rather than ‘Let us say Amen,’” he said.

 

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