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entries tagged with: Our Way


OU PowerPoint includes the whole Megillah


As Megillat Esther is read this Purim, Jews around the world will stamp their feet, hiss, and wave their groggers when they hear the name of Haman.

Many Jews who suffer from hearing loss, however, will never hear that wicked name — or the noise around them when it’s uttered. For these members of the community, Our Way, part of the Orthodox Union’s Yachad/National Jewish Council for Disabilities, has created a PowerPoint presentation of the Purim shpiel, complete with animations of you-know-who being stamped out.

“When you have a community that has trouble hearing, it’s very difficult for them to follow most of the programs that go on in synagogues and temples on a regular basis,” said Batya Jacob, director of Our Way. “We look for ways to include our membership and people in the Jewish community.”

Yachad declared February as North American Inclusion Month and more than 200 synagogues and schools in North America signed up to host Shabbatons and other activities. Our Way’s PowerPoint is one of several outreach projects the OU is promoting throughout the month and into March.

Our Way, a program of the Orthodox Union’s Yachad/National Jewish Council for Disabilities, has created a presentation of Megillat Esther for the hearing-impaired.

The presentation is projected on a screen and includes Hebrew and English translations of the Megillah. Haman’s name appears in red, prompting the user to click. One of 15 graphics then pops up, showing Haman in a pool of sharks, a boiling vat of water, and swallowed up by mosquitos, among other animated fates.

“Every time you get to Haman you can click on Haman on the English or Hebrew side and there’s a visual stamping out,” Jacob said.

This will be the sixth year the presentation has been distributed. It began as a pilot in five communities and last year it went out to 150 synagogues around the world. At least that many are expected this year, Jacob said.

“We keep growing, thank God, every year,” she said.

In addition to aiding the hearing-impaired, the presentation is also beneficial for the elderly, children with learning disabilities, or the visually handicapped who cannot see the small text of prayerbooks. Children, particularly, like the presentation because of the graphics, Jacob said.

“It’s a really useful tool,” she said.

The presentation is available through e-mail to any synagogue that requests it. It has been used in Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist synagogues, as well as yeshivas in Israel. Synagogues that don’t have hearing-impaired congregants should still be interested, Jacob said, to draw more people in from the community for the holiday.

Some synagogues request a copy of the presentation that they can edit, Jacob said. They then insert pictures of members into the graphics.

“So it’s their own people popping up, stamping out Haman,” Jacob said.

Cong. Ahavas Achim B’nai Jacob and David in West Orange, which held an inclusion Shabbat two weeks ago, has been using the PowerPoint for years. The congregation holds its traditional Megillah reading in one room and the PowerPoint presentation in another.

“People look at it with a sense of pride that we have such a thing,” said Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler. “We certainly have [hearing-impaired] people coming from the outside. Just having such a program gives them the sense that they’re welcome in our shul and that’s something we take great pride in.”

The Pinebrook Jewish Center in Montville, which also screens the PowerPoint, doesn’t have any hearing-impaired congregants, according to Rabbi Mark Finkel. The presentation just “makes the text more accessible to everybody in the room,” he said.

“It’s added a whole dimension to the reading of the Megillah,” Finkel said.

For more information or to request a copy of the presentation, e-mail Jacob at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or call (212) 613-8127. For more information on NAIM events, call (212) 612-8172 or e-mail Michelle Orgel at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


For deaf Jews, Jewish community slowly opening up

Shabbat retreat set for deaf and hard-of-hearing singles

_JStandardCover Story
Published: 07 January 2011
Deaf singles sign “I love you” at a Shabbaton with Batya Jacob, Our Way program director, far right. Courtesy Our Way

Our Way’s Deaf and Hard of Hearing Singles Group, a program of the Orthodox Union, will hold its annual retreat Friday through Sunday, February 11 to 13, at the Jewish Center in Manhattan. This event is being held in conjunction with NAIM — the North American Inclusion Month program sponsored by the OU’s National Jewish Council for Disabilities, which includes Our Way.

A shadchan (matchmaker) from, who will sign up retreat participants for its services, will be among the speakers, as well as a deaf rabbi. Saturday night activity will feature ice-skating at Bryant Park followed by late dinner. Sunday’s highlight will be a tour of Manhattan. Shabbat davening as well as the rabbi’s sermons will be interpreted into ASL. At the third Shabbat meal, two deaf young men will tell the gathering about their challenges growing up deaf in the Jewish world.

“Our annual retreat offers deaf Jews the opportunity to meet and socialize, and I am pleased to say that marriages have resulted from it,” declared Batya Jacob, program director of Our Way. “It is very appropriate that the retreat should be held as part of NAIM, because Our Way at all times emphasizes the ‘Inclusion’ of the deaf in the Jewish community.”

The early bird special is $110 per person until Jan. 20 and then $125 per person. The cost includes membership in JDSR (Jewish Deaf Singles Registry) for the year. For further information, e-mail Jacob at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or call her at (212) 613-8127.


For deaf Jews, Jewish community slowly opening up

Yachad support group a ‘haven’

Members of the Junior Yachad division are pictured snowtubing in February 2008. With them are advisers from area high schools. Courtesy Yachad

As the mother of a child with developmental disabilities, Rena (not her name) often feels overwhelmed by her marathon-like schedule of shuttling her daughter to therapists, advocating for her at school, meeting with her caseworker, and pleading with the insurance company to cover the much-needed therapies.

Between private school tuition, tutors, therapy, and medical bills, Rena laments she is facing financial burdens that would leave anyone worried about their future.

Chani Herrmann leads a Yachad mothers’ suppport group. courtesy chani herrmann

Worst of all, said the Fair Lawn mother, is the pain she feels when well-intentioned friends in her community prattle on about the relatively minor travails of their typically well-functioning children. “They say they’re so depressed that their son is leaving for college, or they complain about the tablecloths at their daughter’s wedding, and the whole time, I’m biting my lip, thinking about how my daughter will never graduate college or get married,” she said. “They have no idea how lucky they are, and no sense of what I’m going through.”

Fortunately, Rena has found a haven where she can freely express her feelings in a local support group for mothers of disabled children. It’s one of the few places where she knows she will be understood and she doesn’t have to feel alone.

The support group was launched four years ago by Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, in an effort to help Jewish mothers of special needs children in New Jersey. The group meets weekly in homes around Bergen County.

Yachad is an agency of the Orthodox Union that serves the broad Jewish community. Yachad, Hebrew for “together,” was founded in 1983 to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities and is the only Jewish group in the country of its kind, said organizers.

The mothers’ support group’s facilitator, Chani Herrmann, who is also director of New Jersey Yachad, is a social worker and Teaneck resident who has been involved in Yachad for more than 10 years. As much as the women have gained from her knowledge and expertise, she said, she has gained inspiration from their strength and warmth. “The women learn from one another, share resources, and gain strength and knowledge from each other’s personal experiences,” she added.

Among the topics discussed at the gatherings are school placements for their children, marriage and communication, the stress of having multiple children with special needs, financial stressors, and long-term planning, said Herrmann.

Herrmann said the feedback from the women who attend is that they “need” this group. “It is a safe place to come and be honest about the things they struggle with.”

In addition, it’s a warm environment where parents can celebrate accomplishments with one another in a special way, said Herrmann.

“We have shared important milestones with one another — births, bar mitzvahs, graduations. Nothing is taken for granted — every event in their lives is an important one, and a child’s success in school or at a job is celebrated by the whole group.”

The women who attend the New Jersey Yachad support group range in age and in their level of Jewish observance, and their children suffer from a broad spectrum of disabilities — including autism, developmental and cognitive delays, and ADHD. Yet their core issues are essentially the same, according to Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, the national director of Yachad.

“If you have a child with special needs, you experience similar things, whether it’s grief over losing the dream of having a ‘perfect child’ to dealing with challenging school systems and difficult grandparents and communities that make them feel excluded,” said Lichtman.

Yachad also runs a fathers’ support group that meets monthly in Teaneck. The men’s group offers fathers of children with disabilities an opportunity to learn from one another, provide one another with support, and give them a place where they can be understood, said Lichtman.

“We at Yachad/NJCD very much relate to these families and the challenges they experience,” he said.

While the organization provides the support groups to help alleviate some of the stress for parents, Yachad/NJCD also runs an array of other programs such as North American Inclusion Month (NAIM) in February, which aims to educate Jewish communities nationwide to the challenges these families face and to the benefits of including everyone in the Jewish community, he said.

Another division of Yachad/NJCD, called Our Way, for the deaf and hard of hearing, works to promote inclusion of Jewish deaf and their families into the larger Jewish community. (See box above.) The Association of Parents of Jewish Deaf Children provides support groups for families and helps them find Jewish schools, camps, and community programs, said Batya Jacob, the national program director of Our Way.

“Each year, we have workshops for parents on various topics such as peer pressure or bullying, as well as an annual Shabbaton for families with deaf or hard of hearing members,” said Jacob. “The programs are interpreted into American Sign Language as well as oral interpretation.”

While participants of such programs say they learn a great deal from the facilitators and from one another about navigating their way through the educational and social services maze, one of the biggest benefits, they say, is that it alleviates their sense of isolation.

“No one else really understands the stress, the constant pressure, the social awkwardness, and the extraordinary effort we must make in order to get through the day,” Rena said.

Lori (not her name), a Teaneck mother of several multiply disabled children, said, “It’s good to connect with other mothers who share the same issues. There’s a lot of empathy and it provides a good social outlet.”

The world at large often seems oblivious to their needs and those of their children, said Rena. “It’s wonderful to have a group of women we can rely on to hold our hands and accept us. There’s no one who can relate to our situation except those of us who are in it.”


For deaf Jews, Jewish community slowly opening up

Children hold their hands high, signing “hurray,” during a Shabbaton. Courtesy Our Way

Alexis Kashar was listening intently to the speaker at a recent Jewish federation event in White Plains, N.Y.

A closer look revealed that her eyes were trained not on the podium but on Naomi Brunnlehrman, who was seated in front of the speaker translating the lecture into American Sign Language.

Kashar, 43, a longtime civil rights lawyer, has been deaf since birth. Five years ago she and Brunnlehrman, co-founder of the Jewish Deaf Resource Center, asked the UJA-Federation of New York to subsidize ASL interpreters, so Kashar and other deaf Jews in the New York area could take part in Jewish communal events.

In 2009, the federation began granting $5,000 a year to the center.

“I was ready to quit the Jewish community when I met Naomi,” said Kashar, who lip-reads and speaks but works with an interpreter.

Kashar is involved with the Jewish federation, she says, in an effort to increase services for the Jewish deaf and hard of hearing.

She has three hearing children and was concerned about their Jewish future.

“I realized if I don’t have access, my children won’t either,” she said. “Why would I take them to synagogue when I have to sit there and have no idea what’s going on?”

An estimated 50,000 deaf Jews live in the United States, according to advocacy groups for the Jewish deaf. Insiders say most are not involved in Jewish life, mainly because it’s just too difficult. There are a handful of synagogues for the deaf and half a dozen deaf rabbis, and several national and local social and cultural organizations serve the Jewish deaf.

Avi Jacob of West Orange reads from the Torah. Courtesy Our Way

In the past decade, however, mainstream Jewish institutions and synagogues have begun providing ASL interpreters and/or assistive listening devices, allowing deaf and hard-of-hearing Jews to take part in mainstream Jewish life instead of being segregated. The numbers of such pioneering institutions, however, remain quite small, experts say.

“You can count them on one hand,” said Jeffrey Lichtman, director of Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, which operates under the auspices of the Orthodox Union.

Traditionally, the Jewish deaf were not treated as full members of the community. Their testimony was not accepted in religious courts, and they were exempt from commandments that involve listening, which means they were not called to the Torah or even taught Hebrew.

That is changing, experts say, but very slowly.

“We don’t expect all synagogues to have all their services interpreted, but maybe once a month or for the holidays,” Lichtman told JTA. “It’s no different from making accommodations for the physically challenged or the blind. If you don’t, you are effectively saying these people are not welcome.”

Funding for inclusion is increasing mainly because the Jewish deaf community, like the American deaf community in general, is in transition. There is a growing divide between those who are more comfortable in deaf-only settings — usually older people who grew up signing and comprise the bulk of membership in deaf congregations — and younger deaf Jews who are more at ease in hearing society.

The change is largely due to technology, especially the prevalence of cochlear implants that permit limited hearing, according to Lichtman.

“Ten years ago the deaf community had a strong component that did not want inclusion. They wanted their own separate community,” he said. “Today, people who were not interested in inclusion in the past are now much more interested, especially for their children.”

Avi Jacob, 21, wears hearing aids and does not sign.

Rabbi Eliezer Lederfeind, national director of Our Way, addresses Shabbaton participants using American Sign Language (ASL). Courtesy Our Way

“We wanted to get him to speak, so he could be included in the typical Jewish world,” said his mother, Batya Jacob, program director at Our Way, Yachad’s department for the Jewish deaf.

Avi Jacob attended Jewish day school and is now a senior at Yeshiva University, where a note-taker takes notes for him in secular classes. In his Jewish courses, his mother says, public funding is not available, so he borrows friends’ notes.

“He does not consider himself disabled,” she said.

Cong. Bene Shalom in Skokie, Ill., is among a handful of synagogues founded to serve deaf Jews and their families. Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer says that services, meetings, and his counseling sessions are voiced and signed.

When the cantor sings in Hebrew, a choir “translates” the prayers into ASL. Clergy don’t face the ark during prayers when it is customary to do so because deaf congregants would be unable to see what they are saying. Some liberal synagogues flash lights on and off to signal certain parts of the service, but Bene Shalom does not use electricity on Shabbat.

Goldhamer says that more young deaf Jews attend hearing synagogues than their parents did. If there is no interpreter, they may go with hearing friends; young deaf people today tend to have more hearing friends. Or they might get together with a few other deaf Jews and hire their own interpreter.

“They’re asserting their rights more,” Goldhamer said.

In Columbus, Ohio, the local Jewish federation gives $3,000 a year for deaf services, with interpreted High Holidays services rotating to different synagogues each year. The federations in New York, Boston, and Washington also give money for interpreters.

ASL interpreter Naomi Brunnlehrman, left, and Alexis Kashar are co-founders of the Jewish Deaf Resource Center. Ava Kashar

At Temple Israel in Columbus, which has eight or nine deaf regulars, a deaf member in his 80s celebrated his bar mitzvah seven years ago. The ceremony was interpreted in ASL.

“He told me that when he was growing up, there wasn’t a place for him in the Jewish world,” said the synagogue’s executive director, Elaine Tenenbuam. “There are deaf people in every Jewish community, but they don’t participate. They’ve stepped away from the community because it doesn’t provide for them.”

It’s not always a young vs. old scenario. In many cases, older deaf Jews had parents who insisted on mainstreaming them.

Sharon Ann Dror, the founder and president of the Jewish Deaf Community Center in Los Angeles, “grew up oral” with hearing parents who didn’t want her or her hard-of-hearing sister segregated.

But when she went to college and learned ASL, Dror suddenly realized how much she’d been missing, she told JTA via online chat.

“Instead of getting a few sentences in the hearing world from my friends, I can have a real meaningful dialogue with my deaf community,” she wrote.

Dror reads lips and speaks well, but her three deaf children don’t speak at all, relying instead on signing. Her oldest, 19-year-old Joshua Soudakoff, is a Lubavitcher who teaches Torah to other deaf Jews using ASL. Videos of his weekly Torah lessons, conducted in sign, are at

Soudakoff writes that he feels more comfortable within the deaf community, and that hearing people often don’t understand what he’s trying to say and just nod along.

“They don’t understand that deafness is a physical condition, not a mental issue,” he said.

In November, the Jewish Federations of North America paid for Alexis Kashar and Naomi Brunnlehrman to address the International Lions of Judah conference in New Orleans, held immediately after the federations’ General Assembly. Kashar says that’s good, but much more needs to be done.

“It’s our mission to take this nationally,” she said. “We need to bring the deaf Jews back home.”

JTA Wire Service

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