Silent study

Yosef Tolidano, despite being a descendent of dozens of generations of rabbis, saw the doors of traditional Jewish learning close before him because he was deaf. Determined to keep others from being shut out, he has opened the first kollel for deaf men in the Jewish world.

kollel 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Ma’aseh Nissim)
kollel 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Ma’aseh Nissim)
The traditional doors to Jewish learning have presented an obstacle to many religious deaf people in Israel.
But Yosef Tolidano – a young deaf man descended from a long and distinguished line of Sephardi rabbis – has pulled open those doors, enabling the deaf to immerse themselves in the Talmud.
It has been eight months since Tolidano welcomed the first students to his new kollel (institute for advanced Talmudic and rabbinic studies) for the deaf, called Ma’aseh Nissim (Hebrew for “the maker of miracles”). Now the program – the first of its kind, with 15 young men and growing monthly – is making it possible for them to take their rightful place among the most challenging levels of Torah study: the passionate debates, fine streams of commentary, logical twists and turns, and precise definitions of Jewish law that make up the Talmud.
These joys have long eluded the deaf, since the Talmud is, at heart, an oral tradition. One needs to listen closely to know whether an intonation is a question (“kushia” in Aramaic), or its answer (“terutz”). The intricacies of Talmud mean that each point is pivotal to arriving at the next one.
No amount of lip-reading can provide a clue for the inflections that are necessary for getting through Talmud study.
An observer coming in from the noisy Jerusalem street to witness Ma’aseh Nissim (which runs Sunday through Thursday at the Jerusalem kollel of Rabbi Moshe Fetehi) can’t help but marvel at the intensity of mental activity and multiple cross-currents of communication in a room that is overwhelmingly silent.
Hevrutot (study partners) can be seen debating points of Jewish law, their fingers flying. Tolidano moves through the silent cacophony, taking turns studying with each pair, adding comments in both sign and speech.
The kollel’s founder was born hearing 31 years ago in Tel Aviv, the second of five children of Rabbi Yohanan and Oshra Tolidano, until a bout of meningitis in infancy left him deaf in both ears.
He attended a school for hearing children and learned to read lips and speak. But unlike many other religious parents, who insist their deaf children fit into the hearing world – which means solely speech and lip-reading, a cumbersome method prone to misunderstandings – his mother saw the value of sign language for her son. She was so convinced of its importance that when he was a child she brought a teacher into her home to teach sign language to other deaf children and their mothers.
Now, most of Tolidano’s students (who range in age from 25 to 35) receive the same treatment.
Though a few were already proficient in ISL (Israeli Sign Language) and a couple in ASL (American Sign Language) before arriving at Ma’aseh Nissim, others see the kollel as their first chance to enjoy the freedom of communicating in sign language.
“Even if they know a little sign, too many deaf kids are embarrassed to speak with their hands and stayed closed off,” says Tolidano. “This is the place they can open up and really communicate.”
He knows the challenges personally. Having spent 15 years in a hearing yeshiva with 400 other students, he says that “it was very difficult, although I had a good hevruta who would sit with me and painstakingly go over the day’s learning.”
Nonetheless, “the strain of struggling to read lips for four hours of study took its toll,” he says.
Teaching for two years at Yeshivat Nefesh David, a Toronto program for deaf boys aged 13 to 18, he began to wonder what would happen to many of these boys after high school. “Is that the end of their Torah study?” he asked himself. “And what about the thousands of deaf Jewish men who never even had that chance to learn in ways we can understand?” The new kollel, the first one designed specifically for deaf men, is named after his grandfather, Rabbi Nissim Tolidano, who opened a Sephardi yeshiva, She’erit Yosef, in 1963 in Be’er Ya’acov, near Ramle.
After inspiring thousands of students over a span of 50 years, the rabbi died this past June.
“Every step of the way, I have felt my grandfather’s blessing and his pride,” Tolidano says.
Fetehi, whose own (hearing) students study more noisily in a room across from Tolidano’s, says the Tolidano family rabbis “are a chain that never broke.”
The Ma’aseh Nissim founder “is descended from leaders, and he is a leader,” Fetehi says. “It’s something I could see as soon as we met. I knew he was the kind of person who could pull a group together coming from such different learning backgrounds, and with such different communication skills. Now they come to this place and begin to feel they are worthwhile, that after so long they know they can learn as well as anyone.”
Hillel Inglis is one young man who got a chance to learn as a teen in the Toronto program and then enrolled in a hearing yeshiva. But until Ma’aseh Nissim opened, the London native never thought he would have a chance to continue his education – his way.
“When you can’t hear everything, you lose the points made,” says the 25-year-old, who has hearing aids in both ears.
“Yosef switches our hevrutot every two hours, so we can help each other learn better,” he says.
“Because even though these guys are very smart, most never had a chance to develop the skills for Gemara [Talmud] study. Now all of a sudden, it’s coming together.”
“We’re like a family,” adds Mordechai Weisman, a 25-year-old Israeli with honey-brown peyot and a ready laugh.
“My wife tells me I have more self-confidence now, since I can actually use my mind,” he says.
“It’s like my full potential is now mine to use.”
It’s that potential that continues to excite his teacher, who has a vision of many deaf men from both secular and religious backgrounds studying Torah together. He travels both inside and outside the country to raise funds. Tuition is free, since Fetehi donates the space. Each student receives a monthly $400 stipend to help defray living costs.
Tolidano has clear long-term goals for the kollel.
“To get to the point where every deaf Jewish man can see himself as equal to every other learner, as truly comfortable and confident, as being able to ask the questions he could never ask before in a safe place, there is a lot of work to do,” he says.