Gallaudet students find Judaism in signs

Yelena Thomas teaches Israeli Sign Language to Gallaudet University Hillel students.
Photo by Dan Schere

Ilan Ben-Moshe grew up in an observant family. His father was a cantor. But something was missing. Ben-Moshe is deaf and struggled to make friends with other Jews.

“Being deaf has been difficult for me in the Jewish community, since both communities are very small, which makes it hard for me to find another deaf Jew,” he says.

A junior at Gallaudet University, a university for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, Ben-Moshe now has a community of at least 50 Jews his age.

That is the number students involved in Gallaudet Hillel, the only Hillel student center geared toward deaf students, according to Hillel International. For Ben-Moshe, Hillel fills the social void he confronted before college.

Being a deaf Jew often means being excluded from even routine activities most Jews take for granted, such as hearing music during a worship service or following a seder leader who is explaining the significance of matzah during Passover.

Ben-Moshe, originally from Israel but raised in the United States, grew up in a hearing family. He says he tried to learn to read Hebrew, but that it was too difficult without being able to hear. He ended up not having a bar mitzvah.

Yet he was back in a classroom one afternoon last month with 19 other students giving Hebrew another try by learning Israeli Sign Language. There were smiles and laughter as they learned differences between the American Sign Language they were fluent in and Israeli Sign Language.

“You’re not going to spell every single letter in your name,” instructor Yelena Thomas told them in ASL, explaining that written Hebrew does not use vowels. “So Samantha becomes Smnth. And in Hebrew, the Y and the J make the same sound. So Joseph becomes Yosef.”

Hillel offers the free ISL class weekly, and some students may be able to take what they have learned and use it on a Birthright trip in June that will include both ASL and ISL interpreters.

At most universities, Jewish students find their way to the Hillel center for activities. Gallaudet Hillel makes do without its own building. Students typically meet in a classroom to learn, plan events or catch up on what’s new in each other’s lives. Activities this semester have included a visit to Capitol Hill for Jewish Disability Advocacy Day, a trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and a Shabbat dinner planned for April 21.

“I have been getting to know students and their interests so I can create programs that are aligned with their interests,” Hillel Director Jacob Salem said in an email. Salem, who was hired last year, is the country’s first deaf Hillel director.

Salem said events such as Shabbat dinners at Gallaudet are not events for the hearing population that are simply made accessible to the deaf. They are tailored specifically for the deaf.

“[It is] a gathering that is intellectually abuzz where everyone feels included,” he said in a speech at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s annual networking event last month.

But how does one go about creating a Shabbat service or a Passover seder, events full of singing and praying, without excluding the deaf or hard of hearing?

The answer comes from Paula Tucker, a research associate at Gallaudet who was the Hillel director there for 15 years before retiring last year. One year, students put together their own Haggadah in the form of a PowerPoint presentation so that the seder leader could sign to attendees.

“If you’re holding a book you can’t sign,” Tucker said.

About 90 deaf Jews attended that seder, she said.

Gallaudet Hillel has a relationship with Rabbi Ethan Seidel at Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington, Tucker said. Seidel often arranges to have ASL interpreters during Shabbat. She said Seidel has also helped deaf students convert to Judaism.

But the most important function of the Hillel, Tucker said, is to foster community among a group of young Jews who may not have had the benefit of a Jewish upbringing.

“Some [Jewish] students at Gallaudet had never met someone Jewish before and maybe they had negative perceptions of what Jews were like,” she said. “I wanted them to leave knowing Jews were warm and friendly and welcoming.”

That warmth has rubbed off on Aleksandr Rozentsvit, a second-year transfer student, said so far he has enjoyed Shabbat dinners the most because of the kosher food and the opportunity to make new friends. He said Hillel programming has led him to be “more engaged in Jewish life.”

Depending on whether a student grew up with a deaf family member, their parents advocating for interpreters at Jewish events and other factors, he or she may enter college with very little connection to Judaism said Sara Stesis, associate director of student engagement at Hillel International.

“Sometimes their deaf identity trumps their Jewish identity,” she said. “Sometimes they had a bad experience when they were growing up and some don’t even know whether they were interested in exploring their Jewish identity.”

First-year graduate student Talia Dagan said her Jewish identity was strong as she grew up in California. She attended services with her family and became involved in the synagogue’s group for deaf Jews. But with the beginning of her undergraduate career, her interest in Judaism began to wane.

“I feel like I really lost that part of my Jewish identity,” she said. “I chose to focus on different things. I got on a different track coming back [to school] and I’m trying to pick up that connection with Judaism again.”

Sitting in the classroom, trying to catch on to signing in Hebrew, Dagan said learning a new sign language was “overwhelming,” But she, like others, has at least found a Jewish home on campus.
“This is a really good start for me tonight,” she said.

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