An unforgettable day

More than 60 deaf and hearing-impaired children from around the country gather to celebrate a communal bar/bat mitzva.

The boys inspect their new tallitot. (photo credit: Nachshon Philipson/Video Eden)
The boys inspect their new tallitot.
(photo credit: Nachshon Philipson/Video Eden)
Standing on the raised platform at the front of a packed Jerusalem synagogue, 13-year-old Oren S. took the microphone to describe what it was like for him to reach the age of bar mitzva. He even read several lines from his Torah portion.
Yet while his soft voice did carry, many of his peers in the room heard very little or nothing at all. That’s because Oren was addressing a group of over 60 deaf and hearing-impaired children from all over the country, who gathered on a Monday morning earlier this month with their families, teachers and counselors to celebrate a communal bar/bat mitzva.
Though the youngsters couldn’t hear Oren, they were still able to understand what he was saying thanks to the signing of an interpreter at the front of the room, as well as a large screen onto which a computer was transcribing his words as he spoke.
Organizing the annual event was the International Young Israel Movement’s Jewish Heritage Program for Israel’s Deaf and Hearing Impaired, in partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel.
According to the former’s director, Rabbi Chanoch Yeres, the program – which was founded in 1990 – reaches over 16,000 deaf and hearing-impaired children, as well as adults from all over the country, “to help them integrate into society by instilling Judaic values and traditions.” Gatherings are often centered on life-cycle events or Jewish holidays.
In addition to the annual communal bar/bat mitzva celebration, the Heritage Program is involved with a slew of projects to benefit the deaf and hearing-impaired, including the production of Jewish educational materials; expanded sign-training classes for rabbis and educators; advanced sign seminars to create newly recognized signs for Jewish ideas and concepts; Judaic studies programs; and life-cycle counseling.
Yeres says the children prepared for their bar/bat mitzvas nearly six months in advance of the IYIM communal celebration, which he says is an emotional and momentous event for the children – but perhaps even more so for their parents.
According to Yeres, the event “is a pinnacle point for these parents who have had to overcome many difficulties in raising these children. To see them become a part of the Jewish people for eternity brings great joy to the parents, and for the kids it’s the beginning of a great journey.”
As the buses carrying the children arrived at the synagogue, where they were greeted with refreshments and entertainment, the organizers welcomed a group of IYIM supporters into another room within the synagogue and gave them details about IYIM’s year-round programming for the deaf community. The supporters also received a crash course in signing, focusing on relevant vocabulary words that the children had been taught through the program leading up to their special day. From ‘bar mitzva,’ ‘kiddush,’ ‘festival’ and ‘portion of the week,’ to the names of Israeli leaders past and present, the group learned the appropriate signs, getting a taste of how the deaf could overcome their disabilities in order to communicate.
Following the session, it was upstairs into the main sanctuary, where all the bar/bat mitzva participants received gifts: siddurim (prayer books) for everyone, in addition to which the boys received tallitot (prayer shawls) and the girls received Shabbat candlesticks.
The ceremony itself began as the boys put on their new tallitot, with IYIM staffers helping them wrap their tefillin. The Torah was removed from the ark, and a canopy of tallitot attached to four poles was erected above the bima. Then the boys took turns gathering around Yeres in small groups beneath the canopy, and with the aid of their signer at the front of the room, they recited the blessings over the Torah as Yeres read several verses from the weekly portion.
After the blessings, teary eyed parents threw candy at their children to the accompaniment of festive music and singing.
Next, the girls gathered around Yeres under the canopy and recited verses from the Shema prayer before receiving a shower of candy as well.
Yuri Kershtein arrived in Jerusalem for the ceremony with his bar-mitzva-age son, Itai, after a long ride that morning from their home in Ma’alot. Visibly emotional, he says he was “extremely excited and touched to be at the event, perhaps as much if not even more than Itai.”
Kershtein, who describes his family as “secular,” said he first encountered the IYIM Jewish Heritage Program through his son’s participation in activities run by SHEMA, an IYIM partner organization that oversees after-school programming for children who are deaf or have hearing loss.
Aviel Ben-Yosef, who heads SHEMA’s Jerusalem branch and was also at the ceremony, says his organization works in coordination with IYIM rabbis to prepare the bar/bat mitzva children leading up to the event. Ben-Yosef feels that the program “gives the children a meaningful connection to their heritage, something which they can miss out on just from school.”
Another key partner that works with the deaf community and had representatives at the event is the Israeli Association for the Deaf in Israel. Addressing the children at the ceremony, ADI head Ben-Zion Chen offered them words of inspiration and assured them that they could succeed in life regardless of having a disability. He also reminded them of the importance of respecting their parents, as “it is in their merit that you are here today.”
Earlier, Yeres detailed to the IYIM supporters the benefits that the deaf community was deriving from a variety of advancements in both medical and communicative technology.
He discussed cochlear implants, in which an electronic device that provides a sense of sound is surgically placed under a child’s skin behind the ear, which may help them hear.
A number of the children at the event had undergone the procedure, with varying degrees of success. Yeres also spoke about the use of computers and smartphones as tools for the deaf and hearing-impaired to communicate.
Describing the overall state of affairs for deaf children in Israel, he said the country “has come a long way when it comes to integrating children into ‘regular’ schools and bringing in interpreters.” He also described the deaf community’s socioeconomic situation as being on the upswing due to factors such as integration technologies, which tear down barriers.
Following the bar/bat mitzva ceremony, there was a festive lunch and then a trip to the Old City, culminating in a visit to the Western Wall. For some of the children, Yeres said, “this is their first time in Jerusalem.”
Daniel Meyer, IYIM’s executive director, added that “today is an unforgettable day not only for the celebrants, but for their family and friends who have joined them. We are honored to be able to give these students from all over Israel this very special simha. It is unique that we have 63 children who at birth were up against the odds, but today have proven just what they are capable of.”