Lending an ear

A donated Torah scroll helps a ‘quiet congregation’ in Minsk participate in the full spectrum of Jewish life.

TBS Rabbi Dalia Samansky reads the Torah with her daughters (photo credit: COURTESY OF TBS)
TBS Rabbi Dalia Samansky reads the Torah with her daughters
(photo credit: COURTESY OF TBS)
It was anything but quiet last month when Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in Southern California (TBS) gifted a 500-yearold Torah scroll to Kehillat Sheket (“quiet congregation”), the only synagogue for the hearing impaired in the city of Minsk in the Republic of Belarus.
The event, which took place in Jerusalem on the sidelines of the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s (WUPJ) Connection’s Conference, included dancing, singing and the presence of top religious leaders and dignitaries, including Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky.
The Torah exchange was orchestrated by WUPJ, which president Daniel Freelander says helps North American progressive congregations donate Torah scrolls to “start-up congregations” or under-funded Reform temples outside the US.
WUPJ helped build the community center in which Kehillat Sheket is housed, so Freelander was familiar with the synagogue. When he learned that TBS had a scroll to give away, “I said what a perfect match,” he recalled.
He did not know that the relationship between TBS and Kehillat Sheket began more than 20 years ago, when TBS published Celebrating Judaism in the Home: A Manual for Deaf Jewish Families to help parents of deaf children educate them in Jewish traditions. TBS administrator Jan Seeley recalls how out of the blue the congregation received an inquiry about the book from Kehillat Sheket of Minsk.
“This was the beginning of our relationship with them and they became our sister synagogue,” said Seeley.
“Sadly, after 35 years, with an aging membership, our synagogue had to downsize and move to a place that was more manageable for us. In 2000, we sold our property and rented space at a local synagogue. In all the resettling, we lost touch with Sheket, until WUPJ contacted them on our behalf.”
The two congregations are similar in that they have both hearing and deaf members. They meet in a hearing synagogue/ community center, use sign language, and they want their deaf and hearing children and adults to be educated in their Jewish history and customs. Kehillat Sheket has about 70 active members, half of whom are hard of hearing.
The Torah exchange itself was wrought with symbolism. The scroll is one of about 1,600 miraculously rescued by the Soviets from the chaos of the Holocaust. Rabbinic scholars determined that it was written in 1591 in what is now the Czech Republic.
“If the Torah could talk, imagine the amazing story of Jewish life it would tell,” said Seeley. “Beginning with the scribe who created it 500 years ago in Czechoslovakia to other unknown places in Europe, to London, to the US, arriving in 1985 at our synagogue in Arleta, California. TBS had the extraordinary honor to complete the circle as we sent the Torah back to its birthplace.”
Synagogues for the hearing impaired are uncommon. TBS is the only progressive such synagogue in the US, according to Seeley, though there are several deaf prayer groups in all denominations.
Part of the reason is that some rabbis have ruled that deaf Jews cannot fulfill several commandments that require a sense of hearing, explained Kehillat Sheket’s Rabbi Grisha Abramovich, whose hearing is not impaired.
Abramovich notes that Kehillat Sheket has always found ways to work around these challenges. For example, on Rosh Hashana, deaf members “hear the shofar” by touching it and feeling its vibrations. On Purim, they make noise with traditional noisemakers whenever Haman’s name is signed – even though they cannot hear the noise they are making. This past year, the congregation’s Torah readings were signed in Hebrew and Russian.
“There are many ways to express what you feel and what you want to deliver, and it is not necessarily through words,” Abramovich says.
In the Orthodox community, Rabbi Mordechai Shuchatowitz, spiritual leader of Congregation Agudat Israel of Baltimore, is considered the foremost authority on deafness and Jewish law.
Four of his children have either severe or profound hearing loss.
Shuchatowitz wrote an 11-page Jewish legal document covering such topics as the use of hearing aids on Shabbat; the obligations of the deaf community to perform “spoken mitzvot,” such as Kiddush or reading the Megila on Purim; hearing the shofar blown; and being counted as part of a quorum of 10 men.
The rabbi ruled that in most cases, hearing aids can be used on Shabbat. He also said that deaf men can be counted as part of a quorum if they have some ability to communicate, including use of sign language. In his paper, he writes that those who are unable to say daily prayers such as the Shema or blessings before and after meals should “think them in their hearts instead.”
However, it is only recently that the deaf community has been better included.
In earlier generations, according to Seeley, the deaf community was at best unaccepted and at worst ostracized from Jewish life.
“The deaf community has been left out of mainstream Jewish life, especially in the synagogue,” Seeley said.
Batya Jacob, director of educational services for Yachad, the Orthodox Union’s national Jewish council for disabilities, said some of the challenges are that if one cannot hear and/or talk, only sign, then he or she would not be able to follow a synagogue service or Torah reading, and hiring a full-time interpreter can be very expensive.
However, recent technological advances, from more sophisticated hearing aids to cochlear implants, may provide a sense of sound to a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing in both ears. Such devices have enabled many younger deaf people to access auditory information and communicate.
Furthermore, as the world at large has put more of a focus on inclusion, the Jewish community has followed suit.
For example, said Jacob, the Orthodox Union’s Our Way for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing program is dedicated to including deaf children, teenagers, college students, singles, families, and the visually and hearing impaired in the full spectrum of Jewish life.
The program offers deaf-friendly classes and lectures on topics such as Israel, prayer and the weekly Torah portion.
It also hosts weekend retreats and family workshops.
A few years ago, Our Way published a Purim PowerPoint Megila reading, which it provided free to more than 700 congregations around the world.
According to Jacob, the PowerPoint version enables deaf participants to follow the scroll. Our Way’s Jewish Deaf Learning Central project also offers “Torah in Sign Language” study sessions via Skype or videophone.
“The Jewish community has come a long way,” Jacob says. As for Seeley, she is just grateful that the congregation’s Torah will continue its tradition of empowering deaf Jews in their quest for inclusion in Jewish life.
“It is our heartfelt and sincerest honor to be able to pass this Torah to another deaf and hard of hearing community to afford them the same wonderful opportunities that we have had,” said Seeley.
“Sheket will be able to empower their deaf children with bar/bat mitzvas, a ceremony that deaf children have been deprived of and excluded from the world over for too long. With this Torah, Jewish deaf children can recognize that they can fully participate in their God-given birthright.”