Marlee Matlin reveling in unique ‘Spring Awakening’ revival


When the rock musical “Spring Awakening” premiered on Broadway, it was a critical darling and financial success. It won almost every major award possible, including eight Tonys, four Drama Desk Awards and even a Grammy.

So perhaps it’s not so surprising that it’s been revived on Broadway, even if it’s only been six years since it ended its successful run.

Certainly more startling, though, is that the current production of “Spring Awakening” features a cast of deaf actors signing their lines — and songs.

Even one of the show’s most high-profile stars, Marlee Matlin, concedes that people might consider the idea — deaf actors performing a musical — a bit strange.

“It’s almost ironic,” she said through her longtime interpreter, Jack Jason. She was on the phone with JTA en route from an interview in Brooklyn to her temporary Manhattan digs rented for the duration of the play, which runs through January.

“You’re talking about something that doesn’t happen every day,” she said. “People who haven’t seen the show have to wonder, how is this going to work?

The answer: very well.

Each deaf actor is accompanied by a hearing one, who sings or speaks what is being signed — in essence, two actors play each main role. While that may sound awkward, it takes audience members just a few minutes to become oriented, in part because the show, a production of the Deaf West Theater, is so creatively staged.

Set in Germany in the late 19th century, the “awakening” in “Spring Awakening” is a sexual one. A group of adolescents must deal with feelings they don’t understand and their repressed parents do not explain. The musical has a rousing score by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik that particularly comes to life when the young actors sing as an ensemble. When that happens, the deaf actors become like dancers; through their fast-paced use of American Sign Language, their hands combine the precision of the Rockettes with the artistry of ballerinas.

Although, like Matlin, a few of the deaf actors have some hearing, “It is not about hearing the music,” she says. In fact, several of the actors who have minimal hearing decided — whether for aesthetic reasons or just to make a statement — not to wear hearing aids during the performance.

“They’re just great actors who incorporate the rhythm into their acting,” says Matlin, who is making her Broadway debut. “It takes a great deal of rehearsal time working with the choreographer to make all this work. You [see] deaf actors on stage signing to music they can’t hear.”

The counterintuitive performance adds a moving and affecting layer to the show it didn’t have in its original production. Matlin says people stop her after every performance to comment on how awe-inspiring this version is.

Matlin, along with actress Camryn Manheim — who, like Matlin, is Jewish — play several adult female roles in the play. While Matlin herself doesn’t sing, she says the “most difficult part was learning my lines in conjunction with the music.”

It was a process with which she was vaguely familiar.

“I didn’t listen to music [when I appeared] on ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ she says. “I just used an internal metronome and went with it.” That was in 2008;  she was the sixth celebrity eliminated that season.

“Going with it” is something she’s been doing for a long time. Matlin, 50, was born in a Chicago suburb, the only deaf person in her family. She started to lose her hearing at 18 months.

“I have no idea why and probably never will,” she says.

Her family belonged to B’nai Shalom, the Jewish Temple for the Deaf, in nearby Skokie, which was run by a hearing rabbi whose goal was to bring the deaf and hearing Jewish communities together.

“It started out with deaf and and their hearing family members going to temple together, but it attracted a great number of hearing people” as well, she says.

For Matlin, it provided not only a link to other deaf people, but to her religion.

“It gave me a community to belong to. We’d go to temple Friday nights and I’d learn about my religion and learn about my faith,” she says. “I always looked forward to the community. I got bat mitzvahed there.”

Matlin signed the English parts of the service but learned her Torah portion phonetically and read it in Hebrew.

Matlin wasn’t the only one who did that, and she concedes some of what the deaf children read was unintelligible to members of the congregation.

“But it didn’t matter,” she says, “because they were reading from the Torah and that’s what it was all about.”

The experience at the temple encouraged her in other ways, she maintains.

“It gave me the drive, it gave me the foundation to believe in myself, despite what other people say,” Matlin says.

Her family was also a pillar of strength. At 7, when she said she wanted to be an actress, they enrolled her in a program at the Chicago-based International Center on Deafness and the Arts.

“They loved the idea that I could dream — that I could dream big and wanted to be an actor,” she says.

There Matlin immediately pursued and landed the role of Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” She continued to appear in the center’s productions for about nine years, until she was 16.

Another Jewish actor, Henry Winkler, also provided critical encouragement. He saw one of her performances and went backstage afterward.

“I told him I wanted to be in Hollywood. He said, ‘believe in yourself,'” she recalls. “He encouraged me over the years, and I took his advice to heart because it was coming from this very famous person. A lot of other people didn’t believe in me.”

In fact, they became so close that Matlin stayed with the Winklers for two years when she went out to Hollywood in her late teens. His mentorship helped her land the role of Sarah Norman in “Children of a Lesser God.”

Her nuanced performance as a custodian at a school for the deaf who becomes romantically involved with a hearing teacher (played by William Hurt) garnered her, at age 21, both an Academy Award and Golden Globe Award for best actress — along with a smattering of criticism. One prominent commentator claimed that she didn’t deserve the Oscar because she was deaf and wasn’t really acting. Another said she won it out of pity.

They were “dead wrong,” Matlin says. And she went on to prove it. She has starred in several TV series — including “Reasonable Doubts” and “The L Word” — and had recurring roles in “The West Wing,” “Blues Clues” and “Desperate Housewives,” among others. Matlin has also guest starred in everything from “Seinfeld” to “Law & Order: SVU,” the latter earning her a Primetime Emmy nomination.

While her professional life was relatively ripple-free, her personal life hit rough water early on. In her 2009 autobiography, “I’ll Scream Later,” she writes of her tumultuous off-screen romantic relationship with Hurt, which was was punctuated by episodes of domestic violence. She also went through a period of drug abuse and went to the Betty Ford clinic for treatment.

Fortunately, her personal life turned a corner. She married Los Angeles-area police officer Kevin Grandalski in 1993 in a ceremony that was held at Winkler’s home. Together they have four children aged 12 to 19.

As to her Broadway debut, Matlin is loving it.

“Everything that’s happening is so great; the many messages, the communications from fans,” she says. “It’s a wonderful experience.”

A deaf rabbi who listens


Imagine taking a graduate school class — a small one, with maybe a dozen students — and for the entire year, not being able to understand a single word the professor said. For your final examination, you have to rely on notes compiled from your classmates and pray they understood the material enough to effectively teach you. 

For Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe, who was ordained 20 years ago as the world’s first Reform deaf rabbi, that’s how she got through one of her first-year rabbinical school classes in Israel.

“There was one professor in particular who had a beard that completely covered his mouth, and there was absolutely no way I could see what he was saying,” said Dubowe, a spiritual leader at Temple Adat Elohim, a Reform congregation of more than 600 families in Thousand Oaks. 

Dubowe was born with moderately severe/profound hearing loss. She communicates mainly through spoken English, although she can read lips and is fluent in American Sign Language (ASL). Others may think this made her different — especially as a member of the clergy — but she never saw it that way.

“My intention was not to be different from anyone else,” Dubowe said. “I don’t feel different from others because there are certain things that I don’t hear. That was not the way I was raised. My parents never said, ‘Because you’re deaf you should or shouldn’t do this.’ They said, ‘You’re Rebecca, and you’re interested in that, so do it.’ ”

The Los Angeles native didn’t initially know that she wanted to become a rabbi, but during a summer-long stay with family in Israel, she began to feel a much deeper bond with her heritage.

“I became very connected with my cousin’s mother-in-law, who was a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, and she knew I was very interested in learning and speaking Hebrew,” Dubowe said. “She only spoke in Hebrew with me, and she was very patient. She told me lots of stories about her life and being a pioneer of the kibbutz.”

After being in college for two years, Dubowe went back to Israel, spending five months on her cousin’s moshav — a cooperative agricultural settlement. When she returned, she knew she wanted to be a Jewish professional. 

“My options were to be a cantor, which I probably shouldn’t be — can’t be; be an educator, which I really thought about but wasn’t really interested in the idea of being in the classroom all day; and maybe social work, which I love to do,” Dubowe said. “The rabbinate included all of that — social work, being a counselor, being a part of people’s lives, and being a teacher in the classroom and outside of the classroom.”

With a bachelor’s degree in Jewish studies from the then-University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), she went on to attend rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

“After interviewing at a Conservative school and HUC, I felt like HUC was ready for me. I didn’t think the Conservative movement was keen on having someone with a disability,” Dubowe said.

The journey was not without complications. As an undergraduate, she had always had an interpreter in class. However, her first year at HUC-JIR was in Israel, and finding a local interpreter who was fluent in ASL was nearly impossible. She had to do her best with a combination of lip reading, hearing aids and notes from multiple classmates. 

Rabbi David Ellenson, one of Dubowe’s former professors and HUC-JIR’s current president, knew she was an especially gifted student. 

“From the very outset, she was effervescent, empathic, intelligent, and committed to Jewish life and learning,” he said. “Her career has been a model of success, and she has brought deep Jewish sensitivity to issues of identity and inclusion.”

Dubowe faced another hurdle once she was ordained. Would anyone hire her? Of the 17 open positions she applied for, she was offered two jobs. Ultimately, she accepted a position as an assistant rabbi in a synagogue in New Jersey. Four years later, she was back in the Los Angeles area at Temple Adat Elohim.

Dubowe said her hearing loss hardly gets in the way of her job as a rabbi.

“There is a rare moment that I may not understand the person speaking. However, if necessary, I would ask them to write it down or repeat what they said, but it has not really been a problem,” she said. 

Aliza Goland, the synagogue’s executive director, said Dubowe’s greatest strength is sort of an ironic one. 

“She is a good listener,” she said. “She anticipates congregants’ needs and is ready and able to consistently exceed their expectations. She listens with kindness and empathy and is genuinely interested in people’s stories.”

And she’s made her congregation a more inclusive place in the process.

“She has brought a heightened awareness and sensitivity about all kinds of disabilities to our community,” Goland said.

Dubowe improved her hearing three years ago when she received a cochlear implant — a year after her husband, Michael, who also has profound hearing loss, had the same procedure performed. (Still, she needs to face a person to understand what they are saying.) Her two daughters also are hard of hearing, though the family mostly communicates with each other via spoken English, with occasional signing. 

While she leads a hearing congregation, Dubowe is involved with the Jewish deaf community. As an undergraduate, Dubowe taught Sunday school at Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf, the San Fernando Valley shul that calls itself the world’s first congregation for the deaf.

She works with the Washington Society of Jewish Deaf as well, and while attending an American Jewish Congress conference on its behalf, she led Shabbat morning services.

“At my service, we had a PowerPoint so we didn’t have to hold on to a book. Rather, we could use our hands and sign prayers,” she said. 

Dubowe also led an ASL Birthright trip and is actively involved with Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., which specializes in educating students who are deaf and hard of hearing.

But Dubowe’s favorite part of her job would be the same even if she could hear.

“The best part about being a rabbi is being part of people’s lives,” she said. “Being there for moments of sadness and moments of joy — watching a child grow. I feel like it’s a privilege and honor to be a part of the life cycle, of the journey — being face to face with people and creating relationships.”

As she’s known all along, you don’t need to hear to do that. You just need to listen.

Opinion: Implementing a historic mandate for deaf Jews


The Conservative movement, through its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, has taken a historic step in acknowledging that deaf and hard-of-hearing people are entitled to stand with the Jewish community as equals. Not only did the law committee vote to recognize the users of sign language as equals, it also issued a mandate, or teshuvah, that synagogues and organizations must strive to be accessible to all.

The new teshuvah, which passed on May 24, reads in part:

“The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards rules that 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 berakhot [blessings] via sign language. A deaf person may serve as a shaliah tzibbur [prayer leader] in sign language in a minyan whose medium of communication is sign language.”

The Jewish Deaf Resource Center applauds the law committee, notably Rabbi Pamela Barmash, for taking on this responsibility, writing the teshuvah and recognizing its importance in approving it.

Such a mandate is historic in that it grants full access to a marginalized group of Jews. The concept of providing access to those who are deaf or hard of hearing is new for many organizations.

“Communication access,” as this type of access is called, may include providing qualified sign language interpreters trained in Jewish liturgy, real-time captioning in which someone types the spoken message on a large screen, or auditory systems that amplify what is said and either works with hearing aids or a headset system worn by users.

Many Jewish organizations often are hesitant to provide communication access due to costs that are not anticipated in their budgets. However, there are ways to minimize such costs and maximize this needed access.

More important, many organizations do not realize that the significant number of people impacted by the lack of communication access. Most deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals have immediate family members who are hearing. When one person in the family is without access, the entire family often is deprived of the opportunity to share Jewish communal experiences together.

Deaf Jewish children who become parents themselves, generally to children who can hear, are unable to share positive Jewish memories with their children. The cycle repeats when the hearing children become parents.

The Jewish experience created by these hearing parents for their children often is similar to the one they experienced with their own parents—one of limited or no participation in Jewish communal life. In essence, denying access to one Jewish person has a ripple effect.

To create and nuture a culture in which all Jews are welcome, Jewish organizations must develop policies that require the provision of communication access throughout the organization. Having such policies solidly in place will help the organization respond appropriately to a request for communication access at all levels.

In order to implement the mandate set forth by the Conservative movement’s law committee, the larger Jewish community must work alongside the deaf and hard-of-hearing community to create appropriate communication policies and access.

Only with such collaboration can we end the adverse ripple effect and create an accessible Red Tent that is a welcoming home to all.

Alexis Kashar is president and Naomi Brunnlehrman is a co-founder of The Jewish Deaf Resource Center, a national advocacy organization.

Briefs


 

OU Reaches Out to Deaf Community

The Orthodox Union’s deaf outreach came to Long Beach for a Shabbaton gathering of the deaf and their families, a small event that meant a lot to the often-isolated Orthodox deaf community.

“There wasn’t a big turnout, but I think that it’s really necessary; when you have a deaf child who’s Jewish, there’s a smaller population,” said Jo Cooperman, who drove up from San Diego County with her 3-year-old deaf son, Jadyn Avram. “He always comes back really, really happy from these things. It has a wonderful effect on his self-esteem and his identification with Jews, with deaf Jews.”

Long Beach’s Congregation Lubavitch hosted about 30 deaf adults and children and their families at the OU’s Jan. 7-8 “Our Way” Shabbaton. Long Beach attorney Allen Sragow, who put up about 10 “Our Way” attendees at his house, sponsored the small Orthodox Union agency’s fourth annual Southern California gathering. Organizers said last weekend’s heavy rain cut into the attendance level.

“It’s always a fresh perspective for me to see the Jewish deaf, how they’ve come to understand their interaction with Jewish life,” said Jan Moore, a North Hollywood optometrist who has two deaf sons. His teenage daughter, who can hear, came to Long Beach with two of her Valley Torah High School classmates so the trio could support deaf children and their hearing siblings.

Flying into Los Angeles to lead the “Our Way” Shabbaton was Rabbi Eliezer Lederfeind, who is not deaf, but is the son of deaf parents and lives in Brooklyn with his own six children – including deaf daughters Lida, 13, and Toby, 18. Both have cochlear implants allowing them to hear.

Lida Lederfeind told The Journal in a telephone interview, “I feel like I’m part of everything.”

Every two months, Lida’s father travels to Orthodox deaf enclaves around the country to conduct an “Our Way” Shabbaton.

“More and more deaf youth are Orthodox. They should be able to mainstream in a shul,” said Lederfeind, who oversaw the “Our Way” group’s spirited – and at times humorous – deaf dialogue about Israel in the Lubavitch shul’s small study.

When Lederfeind asked what was the sign language gesture to describe the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, someone jokingly responded: “It’s a sign that you can’t use in public.” – David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Israel ‘Line of Fire’ Program Comes to UJ

An armed Israeli attack helicopter spots a Palestinian ambulance on the road below. Aware that such ambulances have been used to transport terrorists and weapons, the pilot checks with his ground controller whether to strafe and destroy the vehicle. Pilot and controller talk back and forth, weighing whether the ambulance is more likely to carry weapons or sick people. When the vehicle finally pulls up to a hospital, they decide to give it the benefit of the doubt and call off the attack.

The dramatic, real-life incident, with actual footage of the chase taken from the cockpit, will be a highlight of the Jan. 20 event, titled “Air Force in the Line of Fire.”

Israeli and American helicopter fighter pilots will discuss the moral choices facing them during combat missions in the airspace above Israel and Iraq.

Panelists will also speak about the dangers and fears of combat, new weaponry, Israeli-American military cooperation and the future of the Israeli air force. A Q-and-A period will follow.

Speakers will include reserve Maj. Gen. Nehemia Dagan, founder of Israel’s attack helicopter strike forces; two other veteran Israeli combat pilots; and Col. Bill Morris of the Pentagon, former assault helicopter commander in the 101st Airborne Division.

The event, in English, will start at 7:30 p.m. at the University of Judaism, sponsored by the Council of the Israeli Community (CIC) and 12 other local organizations. The CIC is a support organization for the State of Israel and the estimated 100,000 Israelis living in the Los Angeles area, said Chaim Linder, the group’s first vice president.

General tickets for the Jan. 20 event are $10 (CIC members) and $12 (general); reserved seats, $25; reception with the pilots and one reserved seat, $50.

For reservations and information, call (818) 342-7241. – Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Court: NVJCC Familes Can Sue Gun Companies

Three families, whose children were shot in the 1999 attack on the North Valley Jewish Community Center (NVJCC), can pursue their lawsuit against the companies that made the weapons used in the shooting spree.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 10 let stand a ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that the suit could go to trial and declined to hear an appeal for dismissal by two gun manufacturers and two distributors.

The suit grew out of the Aug. 10, 1999, attack by Buford O. Furrow, Jr., a self-avowed anti-Semite and white supremacist on the NVJCC in Granada Hills, which left three teenagers, one adult and three children wounded.

Lead plaintiff in the suit is the mother of Joseph S. Ileto, a Filipino-American postal carrier, who was killed by Furrow the same day in a separate attack.

Last May in San Francisco, the full 26-member appeals court, in a split decision, confirmed that the case could be tried. At the time, Donna Finkelstein, whose then 16-year-old daughter Mindy suffered two gunshot wounds to her leg, told The Journal, “I am so elated that we are finally moving forward.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by Alan Stepakoff and Loren Lieb, whose then 6-year-old son, Joshua Stepakoff, was also shot in the leg.

Also participating in the suit are Eleanor and Charles Kadish, whose son Benjamin, then 5, was the most seriously injured, with gunshots to his stomach and legs.

Among the large cache of weapons found in Furrow’s car were an Austrian-made Glock 9-mm handgun and a 9-mm rifle, made by North China Industries, both manufacturers are defendants in the suit.

In filing the original suit more than four years ago, attorney Joshua Horwitz of the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence said that Furrow, a convicted felon with a history of mental instability, should not have been allowed to build an arsenal of assault-style weapons.

“It is not enough to let guns go out of your factory door and say, ‘Sorry, we don’t know where they’re headed,'”Horwitz said.

The case will now return to the U.S. district court in Los Angeles for trial.

Congressional legislation which would have barred lawsuits targeting the gun industry failed last spring. – TT

 

Purim Briefs


Run and Deliver

Unless you are actually running the Los Angeles Marathon, the marathon and the myriad street closures are likely to inconvenience you. This year, as the marathon falls on Purim (March 7), it may inconvenience Jews delivering mishloach manot, or food packages traditionally delivered to friends and family.

The city has found a way for Purim revellers to run around the marathon. Adeena Bleich, the Jewish community liaison for City Councilman Jack Weiss, organized access through “soft closures” — not the actual marathon route, but close by — which will allow people delivering shalach manot to go through. The main street closures are going to be staggered from 4:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., so deliveries could be times for after 2 p.m.

Copies of the marathon map and street closure times were sent out to area synagogues to ensure limited interruptions in shalach manot giving.

For more information about street closures in your area,call Adeena Bleich at (310) 289-0353 or send e-mail to ableich@council.lacity.org . — Gaby Wenig, Staff Writer

Megillah for the Deaf

It is a mitzvah on Purim to hear the reading of Megillat Esther, the scroll that tells the holiday’s story. In fact, some rabbis say that if you miss hearing one word of the megillah, then you have not fulfilled your obligation.

Certainly, deaf people would have a hard time fulfilling this mitzvah. The Orthodox Union has responded with a way that deaf people can “hear” the megillah.

The Orthodox Union’s National Jewish Council for the Disabled (NJCD) came up with the “PowerPoint Megillat Esther Program,” a CD-ROM that can be loaded into a computer and then projected to the front of the synagogue. A hearing person operates the equipment, following along with the cantor and pointing out the words being read using the mouse of the computer, which are the highlighted, karaoke-style, on the screen. Every time the name Haman comes up, the word is clicked and a graphic of stamping appears on the screen to simulate what should be going on in the synagogue at that moment.

Frank Duchoeny, the Montreal coordinator of Our Way for the Jewish Deaf, a division of the NJCD, developed the program two years ago. This year the CD-ROM, which is available to synagogues for $100, comes with a number of additional features.

“This year’s version has new graphics for Haman and the blessings recited before and after the megillah reading, and it also highlights the psukim [verses] that are recited by entire congregation,” said Batya Jacobs, Our Way’s program director. “The mitzvah of hearing Megillat Esther is a requirement for every Jew. Using our PowerPoint program will facilitate the inclusion of our fellow Jews who are deaf or hard of hearing within the community in this mitzvah.”

For more information or to place an order, call (212)613-8127 or send e-mail to arielib@ou.org . — GW

The Comic Esther

Think your kids watch too many cartoons with no educational value? Have them check out “The Queen of Persia,” a feature-length animated video about the story of Purim, and a graphic novel of the same title based on the video’s screenplay. The novel reads something like a Purim version of the “Asterix” comics — a guilty pleasure with a lot of humor and color on every page.

Shazak Productions, a Chicago-based media company, produced the Purim media to teach children in a fun way, said Rabbi Moshe Moscowitz, the company’s founder. A teacher for two decades, Moscowitz wants the book to spice up classroom learning, and therefore kept the book and video faithful to the authentic biblical sources.

“I want to give teachers new tools that really excite students,” he said. “Whenever learning material is presented in an exciting way, people will learn better. Our goal is to capture the fancy of everyone. Everybody, regardless of background, could pick up [‘The Queen of Persia’] and have a blast.”

For more information or to order “The Queen of Persia”CD, book or video, go to www.shazak.com or e-mail njpmail@mindspring.com . — GW

Listening to Needs


When kids from Sinai Temple celebrate Chanukah with the members of Temple Beth Solomon (TBS) in Tarzana on Friday night, Dec. 6, they’ll notice that the service is slower and streamlined, but that the singing is performed with every bit as much gusto as a “Friday Night Live” service. And the kids themselves will be able to join in, having learned how to sign the “Shema” when TBS members paid a visit to Sinai.

Building bridges between the deaf and hearing communities is the goal of programs like those of TBS and the group Our Way, which is aimed at observant Jews. More than ever in history, deaf Jews are looking to connect with their heritage and trying to overcome the frustration of a hearing Jewish community that, while well-meaning, still doesn’t seem to “get it.”

For example, a number of people — like the producers of the “Hallelu” concert held Oct. 20 at the Universal Amphitheatre — are attempting to make their programs more accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing by providing interpreters. While the deaf community appreciates the gesture, TBS administrator Jan Seely believes it misses the point.

“You could have someone sign the music but it’s not the same experience,” she said. “There is something in the music you will never get through an interpreter. You’ll get lyrics, you might get rhythm, but you’re not getting the essence.” Not only that, but as TBS lay leader Roz Robinson points out, there is a large constituency of older Jews who missed out on having a Jewish education because they attended residential schools for the deaf. As a result, they lack the basics that most rabbis and teachers take for granted when giving a lecture and are unable to appreciate what is being signed to them in temple services and sermons.

“If the material of the sermon is over their heads and nothing they can relate to, the deaf would be lost even with an interpreter, because an interpreter doesn’t explain anything,” Robinson said. “The interpreter only translates what is being said into sign language. The Hebrew portion of any service is also a problem. Most interpreters will only sign, ‘speaking Hebrew.'”

In general, there are numerous problems for the Jewish deaf, which probably never occur to those who can hear. If you are trying to follow an interpreter and your attention wanders, you may not be able to find your place again in the service. And what if the lighting is poor or there are other visual obstructions? At one Orthodox service that hosted deaf visitors, the mechitza made it almost impossible to follow the service when seated in the women’s section.

Even participating in Jewish communal and social activities presents a challenge.

Robinson, the only deaf person in her family of four, expressed frustration with the fact that she has never been able to fully participate in the sisterhoods at either of the hearing shuls her family joined. Although she is a very animated talker and speaks clearly enough to be easily understood, Robinson said the few times she attended Jewish communal events she never spoke up, fearing that by the time she jumped into the conversation the others would have already moved on to another topic — and she would be left looking and feeling foolish.

“Large group discussions are impossible for deaf people to follow and participate in, even with an interpreter, because people talk in random order and because the deaf are always one step behind whatever is happening,” she said.

“I can’t really see any temple providing full access for the deaf except for our temple, because it is designed by and for deaf people,” Robinson said. “We understand all the pitfalls and can meet individual needs in our small group.” However, TBS is affiliated with the Reform movement. For more observant Jews, Our Way may provide a more fitting alternative, helping its members integrate into hearing Orthodox congregations.

Our Way is a New York-based national organization run by Rabbi Eliezer Lederfeind, the hearing son of two deaf parents who has two deaf daughters among his six children.

When Lederfeind became observant as an adult, he noticed “there were certainly clubs for the Jewish deaf but it was not the same as having a real level of observance and commitment.”

He began working with deaf Jewish teenagers and gradually expanded the program to include family Shabbatons, programs teaching Torah via e-mail and a sports program for deaf children with separate gyms for boys and girls. The organization even has a matchmaking service, the Jewish Deaf Singles Registry (www.jdsr.org).

Lori Moore, a North Hollywood mother of two boys and a teenage girl, leads the Our Way chapter in California. Her sons, Jason, 20, and Andrew, 12, are both deaf. She said the family’s involvement with Our Way has helped her children to integrate better into their community. She recently helped plan a Shabbaton hosted at Shaarey Zedek that drew participants from across the country. “The Shabbaton was a good eye-opener,” she said. “People could see how the deaf are really excluded from the community. Even when we want rabbis to come speak to the Our Way group, they are apprehensive. I really wish, with all the money the shuls raise, that they would give some to Our Way to help people stay in touch with their Judaism.”

Jason Moore, reached in New York, said there have been difficulties (“In middle school, I wasn’t exactly welcomed among my peers”), he wrote in an e-mail, but that there have been certain advantages to having a hearing loss, including the strength of the deaf community.

“It’s amazing how much the deaf look after their own,” he said. “Also, I can shut off my hearing aids when conversations start to annoy me.”

His challenges as a religious Jew who is also deaf are more complex. They include issues like not being able to hear the shofar being blown and questions from others about whether he is “able to be Yoseh under someone else’s bracha” — in other words, whether halachically he is able to perform a mitzvah on behalf of other people, like reading the Megillah, if he cannot hear it and therefore cannot fulfill the mitzvah for himself.

Still, while some deaf Jews remark that they would characterize themselves as deaf first and Jewish second, Jason Moore disagrees.

“I am a Jew; deafness is secondary,” he said. “Deafness only applies in this olam hazeh [this world] whereas being Jewish applies in this world and the next.”

“Being a religious Jew overtakes any ‘defect’ a person might have, because whatever your defect, you are always Jewish,” Moore said.

The Moore family and Robinson, while on very different ends of the religious spectrum, do agree on one thing: hearing and deaf communities should continue to strive for greater inclusion, on both sides.

“TBS is open to all,” Robinson said. “Our services are completely voiced in addition to signed, so that anyone can follow along with us.”

Signs of Love


Esther has been dreaming about Jake for four years. So when he finally asked her out, she did not hesitate to say yes. It no longer mattered that he lived in Miami and did not lead an Orthodox Jewish life. Though she hated to think of leaving New York City and wanted to make sure that their future children would receive a Jewish education, “we were going to try to work it out,” she says. “It’s really hard to find someone Jewish, so if you don’t try, then what?”

Esther, 31, is deaf. Jake, 35, is hard of hearing. Though both can speak, they prefer to communicate in sign language, which according to Esther “is a more romantic way to express yourself.”

They have been dating for 10 months and credit their meeting to the Jewish Deaf Singles Registry (JDSR). A project of Our Way, a division for the deaf and hard of hearing at the Orthodox Union-sponsored National Jewish Council for the Disabled, the JDSR might very well be the leading warrior in the fight against intermarriage within the Jewish deaf singles community. Coordinated by Sam and Rachelle Landau, a deaf married couple, the JDSR offers a newsletter three times a year, pizza parties, retreats and matchmaking services. It has led to several marriages and many meetings and has created a sense of community for a group of people who often feel isolated from mainstream Jewish life.

The JDSR “is very unique,” says Rabbi Eliezer Lederfeind, the national director of Our Way/NJCD. “It’s for the observant and nonobservant; people come from different countries. The bottom line is that they’re all Jewish.”

According to Lederfeind, there are approximately 10,000 Jewish deaf people living in America. About 80 to 90 percent of deaf people marry other deaf people. For the Jewish deaf, “that means there’s a very limited amount of people that they can marry,” he says. “With JDSR, we show them that we care.”

For Jewish deaf singles, “intermarriage is a very big problem,” says Leah Weinstock, a board member of the JDSR. “There are other clubs for the deaf but they’re not necessarily for singles, or they’re for non-Jews. JDSR helps minimize conflict for Jewish [deaf] people who are looking to meet.”

Weinstock observes that when you’re single, Jewish and deaf, “you’re more willing to work things out” with someone. “I knew this couple, she was Orthodox, he was Reform… they worked it out. They’ve been married for six years and have three kids.”

Because the JDSR events and its newsletter full of personal ads attract people from all over North America, Israel and Europe, long-distance relationships tend to proliferate. At a recent retreat in Silver Spring, Md., for example, a woman from Paris found herself the center of attention among five men who offered to visit her in France. “She did feel a little overwhelmed,” recalls Weinstock, who adds that at JDSR events, men usually outnumber women.

Esther and Jake, who asked that their names be changed, had begun their relationship online. When they saw each other at JDSR events, they treated each other as friends, despite Esther’s secret crush. Esther went on to date someone else.

Fast forward to the day that Esther broke up with her boyfriend. That’s when Jake “realized that maybe I was right for him,” she says. “For four years, I thought, ‘He lives too far away, he’s not religious.’ But I was in love with him. We started to work things out.”

Esther and Jake take turns traveling to each other’s cities and see each other a few days a month. Otherwise, they communicate online. The relationship involves a series of compromises. Esther eats kosher. Jake does not, but since they started dating, he’s read a few books about Orthodox Judaism. Jake wants Esther to move to Miami. Esther has a difficult time imagining the day she moves out of New York, but she’ll do it if necessary. Her ex-boyfriend might have lived closer by, but what does that mean in the grand scheme of things?

“Jake and I clicked,” says Esther regarding the question of what makes someone worthwhile. “We share the same family values, we have great communication, we often think alike. We’ve thought about each other for so long.”

Though they have not yet spoken of a wedding, Esther feels she has met the one. “He feels the same way. We just want to get to know each other more,” she says.

Whatever happens, Esther feels a great debt to the JDSR. “It’s the best place to meet people if you’re Jewish and deaf,” she says. “And the more you come to events, the greater your chances are of meeting someone. Sometimes, it doesn’t happen right away. Jake and I were friends first. Only later did I realize, ‘Hey, what about that guy?’ ”

Dear Journal


Sharon Ann Dror, born deaf, didn’t enjoy seders with her hearing family while growing up in a traditional Jewish home in Santa Monica. She could read lips, but she couldn’t see peoples’ faces as they read from behind their Haggadot. &’009;

“I felt frustrated and bored,” recalls the 38-year-old marketing manager, the founder of the Jewish Deaf Community Center. “I couldn’t understand anything. I just read the Haggadah by myself, over and over. I wished that I could hear.”

Passover wasn’t the only time Dror felt shut out of Jewish life. Her parents attempted to enroll her in Hebrew school but couldn’t find one willing to take a deaf child. Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in Arleta, offered religious school in sign language, but it was far away and Dror didn’t know how to sign. She was raised in the oral communication method, which means she communicates by reading lips.

Dror was finally able to attend school at Chabad in Westwood, where “the rabbis had to keep moving their mustaches so I could read their lips,” she says. &’009;

Those experiences turned Dror into an activist.

In 1992, Dror, now the mother of three deaf children, founded the Jewish Deaf Community Center to create more opportunities for deaf Jews in L.A. The JDCC provides seders, High Holiday services and other programs with a traditional Jewish bent and kosher food (Temple Beth Solomon is Reform). &’009;

Ultimately, though, Dror became dissatisfied with the center’s annual sign-language seders. “The problem was that many deaf Jews did not have a Jewish education, so they didn’t understand what was going on,” she says.

The result, this year, is a brand-new, multimedia educational seder, developed by Dror and JDCC board member David Rosenbaum with a grant from the Los Angeles Jewish Community Foundation.

On March 31 at Burbank Temple Emanu El, up to 170 deaf Jews and their relatives will gather at small tables, family style, with a leader at each table. They’ll gaze at two large TV monitors at each end of the room that will project Haggadah text and pictures describing essentials such as the seder plate. There will be a voice for hearing people to follow as well.

“The seder will be totally accessible for everyone,” Dror says. “For deaf people, the key is that the seder is visually oriented, because deaf people are visually oriented. I’m hoping that when our deaf participants go home, they’ll say, ‘I finally understood the whole Haggadah, for the first time ever.'”


The JDCC seder costs $25 per person. For tickets and information, call (818) 845-9935 (voice); (818) 845-9934 (TTY); or (818) 845-9936 (fax).

Temple Beth Solomon is also hosting a seder at the Sportsmen’s Lodge on April 1, the second night of Passover. For information, call (818) 899-2202 (voice); (818) 896-6721 (TTY); or (818) 899-2123 (fax).

Dear Deborah


Sharon Ann Dror, born deaf, didn’t enjoy seders with her hearing family while growing up in a traditional Jewish home in Santa Monica. She could read lips, but she couldn’t see peoples’ faces as they read from behind their Haggadot. &’009;

“I felt frustrated and bored,” recalls the 38-year-old marketing manager, the founder of the Jewish Deaf Community Center. “I couldn’t understand anything. I just read the Haggadah by myself, over and over. I wished that I could hear.”

Passover wasn’t the only time Dror felt shut out of Jewish life. Her parents attempted to enroll her in Hebrew school but couldn’t find one willing to take a deaf child. Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in Arleta, offered religious school in sign language, but it was far away and Dror didn’t know how to sign. She was raised in the oral communication method, which means she communicates by reading lips.

Dror was finally able to attend school at Chabad in Westwood, where “the rabbis had to keep moving their mustaches so I could read their lips,” she says. &’009;

Those experiences turned Dror into an activist.

In 1992, Dror, now the mother of three deaf children, founded the Jewish Deaf Community Center to create more opportunities for deaf Jews in L.A. The JDCC provides seders, High Holiday services and other programs with a traditional Jewish bent and kosher food (Temple Beth Solomon is Reform). &’009;

Ultimately, though, Dror became dissatisfied with the center’s annual sign-language seders. “The problem was that many deaf Jews did not have a Jewish education, so they didn’t understand what was going on,” she says.

The result, this year, is a brand-new, multimedia educational seder, developed by Dror and JDCC board member David Rosenbaum with a grant from the Los Angeles Jewish Community Foundation.

On March 31 at Burbank Temple Emanu El, up to 170 deaf Jews and their relatives will gather at small tables, family style, with a leader at each table. They’ll gaze at two large TV monitors at each end of the room that will project Haggadah text and pictures describing essentials such as the seder plate. There will be a voice for hearing people to follow as well.

“The seder will be totally accessible for everyone,” Dror says. “For deaf people, the key is that the seder is visually oriented, because deaf people are visually oriented. I’m hoping that when our deaf participants go home, they’ll say, ‘I finally understood the whole Haggadah, for the first time ever.'”


The JDCC seder costs $25 per person. For tickets and information, call (818) 845-9935 (voice); (818) 845-9934 (TTY); or (818) 845-9936 (fax).

Temple Beth Solomon is also hosting a seder at the Sportsmen’s Lodge on April 1, the second night of Passover. For information, call (818) 899-2202 (voice); (818) 896-6721 (TTY); or (818) 899-2123 (fax).

Seders Offered for Hearing Impaired


Sharon Ann Dror, born deaf, didn’t enjoy seders with her hearing family while growing up in a traditional Jewish home in Santa Monica. She could read lips, but she couldn’t see peoples’ faces as they read from behind their Haggadot.

“I felt frustrated and bored,” recalls the 38-year-old marketing manager, the founder of the Jewish Deaf Community Center. “I couldn’t understand anything. I just read the Haggadah by myself, over and over. I wished that I could hear.”

Passover wasn’t the only time Dror felt shut out of Jewish life. Her parents attempted to enroll her in Hebrew school but couldn’t find one willing to take a deaf child. Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in Arleta, offered religious school in sign language, but it was far away and Dror didn’t know how to sign. She was raised in the oral communication method, which means she communicates by reading lips.

Dror was finally able to attend school at Chabad in Westwood, where “the rabbis had to keep moving their mustaches so I could read their lips,” she says.

Those experiences turned Dror into an activist.

In 1992, Dror, now the mother of three deaf children, founded the Jewish Deaf Community Center to create more opportunities for deaf Jews in L.A. The JDCC provides seders, High Holiday services and other programs with a traditional Jewish bent and kosher food (Temple Beth Solomon is Reform).

Ultimately, though, Dror became dissatisfied with the center’s annual sign-language seders. “The problem was that many deaf Jews did not have a Jewish education, so they didn’t understand what was going on,” she says.

The result, this year, is a brand-new, multimedia educational seder, developed by Dror and JDCC board member David Rosenbaum with a grant from the Los Angeles Jewish Community Foundation.

On March 31 at Burbank Temple Emanu El, up to 170 deaf Jews and their relatives will gather at small tables, family style, with a leader at each table. They’ll gaze at two large TV monitors at each end of the room that will project Haggadah text and pictures describing essentials such as the seder plate. There will be a voice for hearing people to follow as well.

“The seder will be totally accessible for everyone,” Dror says. “For deaf people, the key is that the seder is visually oriented, because deaf people are visually oriented. I’m hoping that when our deaf participants go home, they’ll say, ‘I finally understood the whole Haggadah, for the first time ever.'”


The JDCC seder costs $25 per person. For tickets and information, call (818) 845-9935 (voice); (818) 845-9934 (TTY); or (818) 845-9936 (fax).

Temple Beth Solomon is also hosting a seder at the Sportsmen’s Lodge on April 1, the second night of Passover. For information, call (818) 899-2202 (voice); (818) 896-6721 (TTY); or (818) 899-2123 (fax).