I was fortunate to be born into a Jewish family with three generations of deaf members. Both of my parents are deaf, as were my paternal grandparents. This was an ideal situation for a deaf child, as I considered myself fortunate to have parents who made sure I had full access to language through sign language at home. Given that I was a typical member of my family, I considered myself the same as everyone else.
At the same time, my parents had very restricted access to Jewish communal life while growing up. My father’s experience as a bar mitzvah consisted of being called up to the bima one morning and being asked to read a passage. To this day, he has no idea what he read. My mother was the only deaf member of her family and did not sign until she was in her late teens. She attended a non-signing Jewish program for deaf children, but stopped attending after one year because it was too difficult to learn this way. Nevertheless, they remain proud Jews to this day. The word “can’t” is not in my parents’ vocabulary. They always see the potential and the positive in every facet of life.
I grew up in a very culturally Jewish neighborhood on Long Island and led a very culturally Jewish life there. There was no doubt in my mind that to be at home meant that I was in a Jewish environment. However, because my family did not have access to synagogue life nor any other part of Jewish communal organizational life, neither my sister nor I received a formal Jewish education.
My identification as a Jew cemented when my family moved to Fort Worth, Texas when I was in the 8th grade. My sister and I were the only Jews in our high school and felt different from the others, who were active participants in many Christian groups. At the University of Texas at Austin, I joined a Jewish sorority. There, I felt at home. This played a very large role in how the rest of my life’s story plays out.
I remained at the University of Texas for both undergraduate and law school and met my husband, who is hearing, there. After graduation from law school, we relocated to Los Angeles where we both began our law practices. I focused on civil rights as well as special education law — fighting for access for children who were denied an appropriate education. I also had the opportunity to break new ground with the Americans with Disabilities Act law, as it was passed around the time I started my practice.
As I was forging ahead professionally, we had three children, all of them hearing. It was in my role as a mother — raising three hearing Jewish children — where I faced the greatest challenge with respect to Jewish communal life.
Like most Jews, I want to give my children the gift of moral stability. I want them to become full-fledged members of the Jewish community. For this to happen, I had to become a member of a synagogue, go to services and become a practicing Jew so that I could share this experience with my children and be a role model for them.
However, I was not prepared for what happened next. I was told that access to the Jewish world for deaf people like me was restricted, since sign language interpreters were not normally provided. I was asked to create access on my own. It was the equivalent of asking those who use wheelchairs to build their own ramps.
We relocated to Scarsdale, in Westchester County, seven years ago. My challenges with the Jewish world increased when my oldest child was getting ready to become a bat mitzvah. To kick off the preparation for this process, we were asked by her religious school to attend a Shabbat retreat. I am embarrassed to admit that I almost skipped this event altogether, because I was not sure how to create the access that I needed without being intrusive. I was also burnt out from fighting for access to several important events within the Jewish community. I had begun to give up on my own religious heritage.
Fortunately around that time, I became actively involved with the Jewish Deaf Resource Center. The co-founder, Naomi Brunnlehrmann, provided me with the support I needed. She agreed to work with me, encouraged me to make the Shabbat retreat a priority and offered her services as an interpreter for the event. A trilingual interpreter, she is able to interpret Jewish prayer from Hebrew to American Sign Language (ASL) as well as to interpret from English to ASL and vice versa. An interpreter who is unable to interpret Hebrew would not have been able to make the Shabbaton accessible. The same challenge occurs when live captioning is offered as an accommodation at a conference or other location. If the stenographer does not know Hebrew, all that appears on the screen is, “Hebrew being spoken.”
My daughter and I ended up going to the retreat. It was so meaningful that I became even more committed to the planning and success of her bat mitzvah. And the Torah portion assigned to Leah was the Leviticus portion about the commandment that forbids cursing the deaf or placing a stumbling block before the blind. To me this means that according to Jewish law, the Jewish community is obligated to welcome those who are deaf or blind.
I am determined that my children and future generations are able to experience all that the Jewish world has to offer. I have come to believe that the Jewish community wants to include everyone in the tent and will do so once it understands what barriers it needs to remove on the pathway inside.
There are a few stumbling blocks that need to be chipped away. Many people perceive the accommodations to be quite costly in light of how many deaf or hard-of-hearing people require the service. However, aside from the fact that the Jewish community has a moral obligation to include everyone, what many fail to realize is that a significant number of people are impacted by the failure to accommodate a Jew who is deaf or hard of hearing. Most such individuals have immediate family members who are hearing, so when one person is without access, it often affects the entire extended family. For instance, when I do not attend a Jewish event, the number of Jews not attending quickly grows to 14.
On top of the general communication inaccessibility, the complexity of a foreign language, in this case Hebrew, adds an extra barrier for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Another stumbling block, which has existed for thousands of years, is the paternalistic view within Jewish law towards deaf or hard-of-hearing people. This derives from the conventions established in the Talmud. However, I am proud to say that this spring, the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards unanimously passed a historic teshuvah recognizing Jews who are deaf and hard of hearing as equals with the rest of the larger Conservative Jewish community.
The teshuvah states in part:
... the deaf who communicate via sign language and do not speak are no longer to be considered mentally incapacitated. Jews who are deaf are responsible for observing mitzvot. Our communities, synagogues, schools, and camps must strive to be welcoming and accessible, and inclusive. Sign language may be used in matters of personal status and may be used in rituals. A deaf person called to the Torah who does not speak may recite the [blessings] via sign language. A deaf person may serve as a [prayer leader] in sign language in a minyan whose medium of communication is sign language.
(A copy of the full teshuvah can be found at the website of the Rabbinical Assembly: rabbinicalassembly.org)
I realize that many attitudes and barriers that exist today will not be removed overnight. Access for Jews who are deaf or hard of hearing may require some difficult choices and reworking of budgets. It is a matter of making sure that Jewish organizations and synagogues are truly accessible to all on a permanent basis.
May it be God’s will to help us work together. May God grant strength to Jews who are deaf to keep asking for access to Jewish life. May God also grant wisdom to all Jews so that access is provided to those who are deaf, so that they are not cursed with a denial of access to Jewish life. May it happen soon and in our lifetime.
Alexis Kashar is a civil rights attorney. She also serves as president of the board of the Jewish Deaf Resource Center, public policy chair of the National Association for the Deaf and president of the board of directors of the New York School for the Deaf.