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home : news & features : infocus Monday, September 15, 2008

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Expanding the tent
Congregation sought for deaf Jews
by Richard Greenberg, Associate Editor

The Washington area has congregations to fit a multitude of Jewish subgroups, from the Orthodox to Reconstructionists to secular humanists to gays and lesbians. But one Jewish group continues to be marginalized, according to a number of observers, including Potomac resident Ellen Schein, a lay Jewish educator who works primarily with deaf people. "The deaf community basically hasn't had Judaism," declared Schein, 38, who along with several partners, is pushing a proposal that seeks to remedy that. It would create a Jewish deaf congregation, one of only a handful that have ever operated in the United States. Known officially as the Jewish Deaf Congregational Initiative, the project is sponsored by Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, which is seeking a $250,000 grant from New York-based Covenant Foundation to underwrite the project over five years. Adat Shalom would house the new congregation. The initiative's other partners are the Washington Society of Jewish Deaf, the Jewish Deaf Resource Center and the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning. "Jewish deaf people in the metro D.C. area do not currently have full and direct access to Judaism in their own language," states the grant application, which was submitted in late June and is expected to be ruled on by December. "Therefore, many Jewish deaf people and their hearing family members have been lost to apathy or other religions that do provide access." According to the grant document, the Washington area has a relatively large deaf population - about 41,000, according to the most recently available data - in part because of the presence of District-based Gallaudet University, the only liberal arts university in the world for deaf people. Of the approximately 110 Jewish congregations in the Washington area, only 16 provide sign language interpreters for services, according to the grant proposal. "The few that provide regular ongoing interpreting services, report little or no deaf attendance." The deaf congregation envisioned in the grant application would incorporate an array of fully accessible programs focusing on Judaic education, religious services, life-cycle events and joint activities involving Adat Shalom's hearing congregants. The education component, for example, would include b'nai mitzvah training for deaf teens and adults, intergenerational Torah study and instruction on how to incorporate Jewish practices into the home. Under joint programming efforts, hearing congregants would be offered deaf-culture classes and instruction in American Sign Language (ASL), the dominant form of communication in the United States deaf community and several others worldwide. Hearing congregants would also be invited to ASL-only services and would celebrate "select joint holidays" with deaf congregants. Most important, the proposed congregation within a congregation would be a forum for recruiting and training deaf Jews, both young and old, who ideally would "become lay leaders for other members of the Jewish deaf community," the proposal continues, predicting that the congregation will emerge as a national model. A spokesperson for the Covenant Foundation declined comment on the proposal. Deaf Jews who said they would benefit from the new congregation include Kelby Brick, 37, of Catonsville, Md., a member of the JDCI Advisory Group, who said in an interview last week that he is "very excited" about the project. "Many places of faith are not accessible," he added, "and they make no effort to fully assimilate me in the life of the congregation. My family and I are actively seeking a synagogue that would be somewhat accessible for us, but we haven't found one. It's a very frustrating experience, as we try to raise our children [who are not deaf] in a Jewish environment." Brick, however, had attended deaf-accessible High Holiday services in 2005 and 2006 at Temple Emanuel in Kensington that were conducted primarily by deaf people using ASL. Interpreters translated the services into spoken English (and occasionally Hebrew) for hearing attendees. "It was one of the most inspiring and exciting experiences I have ever had," said Brick. The services were co-organized by WSJD and Schein, who said they may have been unprecedented nationally. Similar services are scheduled for this year at Adat Shalom. Wheaton resident Alicia Epstein, 29, who termed the JDCI project "one of a kind," said she did not have the opportunity "to learn and appreciate the Jewish community" until she participated in a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip in 2000 that was customized for deaf college students. "It was a life-changing experience for me," Epstein, president of the Maryland Association of the Deaf, said in an e-mail. "For the first time, I was able to participate and attend a Shabbat service with my deaf friends." Epstein, who is not a member of a congregation, said that other than the High Holiday services at Temple Emanuel, accessible Judaic offerings in the Washington area have consisted mostly of "informal gatherings" within the deaf community. "Hence," she added, "this is why the initiative is very important to me, because I am still learning about Judaism." Adat Shalom was selected as the incubator for JDCI primarily because of the shul's culture of "diversity and participation," according to the grant application. "We have long sought to be an open and welcoming community to all who are on a Jewish journey, particularly those from historically marginalized groups," Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom said in a recent letter to the Covenant Foundation. "Yet we often fall short," he added. "This is very much the case around ASL interpretation of our services and events, something long entertained yet never implemented - until now."


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