A Deaf Jewish Mom
As a mom with three hearing children, I volunteer in many venues, including my children’s elementary school. I also happen to be deaf and communicate primarily through sign language when presenting to groups. It has become a tradition of sorts for me to present annually to the second-grade classes at my children’s school to help raise awareness of what it means to be a deaf person. On this particular morning, my son who is in the fourth grade joined me for the first time. This time, the sign language interpreter did not show up, which meant my communications with the class would not be as easy as usual. I decided to keep it light by letting the kids lead the discussion and ask me questions. None of the questions were new to me: “Can you drive?” “Can you read?” “How do you wake up in the morning?” “How do you know if there are police sirens?” “How do you make a phone call?” and the like. I guess my son was surprised at their misconceptions of deaf people because he started telling them about some of the cases I handled as a civil rights attorney and letting them know I was capable of the same kinds of things as their parents. I heard from some of the parents that evening that their kids were fascinated with how we are all the same in our own way and how technology levels the playing field for many of us.
However, when my son and I had a chance to debrief that night, he shared with me how surprising it was to him to have people ask me if I can drive and read. I explained to him that I am probably the first deaf person many of them have met and this is how people learn about how we are same and different at once.
It was a turning point in our relationship. He had never before realized that people outside our family think of me as different. He saw how beneficial it was to have others understand that I am not all that different from their parents. In our daily lives, I am the same as all the other moms. I do carpools, and I remind my kids to do their homework and to clean up after themselves.
The timing of this experience is so poignant because this past weekend was the first National Jewish Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Awareness Shabbat. It is on that weekend that we read in the Torah, “Do not insult the deaf…” (Leviticus 19:14). It is a lesson on inclusion for all of us: that we must always strive to include everyone in our lives. Despite this important lesson, so much of the Jewish world is still not accessible to me, and as a result, there is limited access to the Jewish world for my family, even though they can hear. When a Jewish parent is without access, the whole family is without access. Consequently, we cannot afford to exclude even one Jew—we must strive for full inclusion.
The effort toward full inclusion is diligently promoted by a very special group of Jewish people at the Jewish Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Resource Center (JDRC) and all of its partners in the wider Jewish community. With all that JDRC is doing, synagogues, community centers and public places that serve the Jewish community are realizing that we must become more inclusive.
One of JDRC’s efforts to promote a more inclusive Jewish community was the establishment of the National Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Awareness Shabbat that took place this past weekend. On this Shabbat, many rabbis across denominations devoted their sermons to the specific commandment about including the deaf and hard of hearing and the larger meaning of full inclusion for all Jews. What better way to become a more inclusive community than to learn about one another on Shabbat.
That is the message of Torah. Do not insult any Jew with inaccessible services or an exclusive community. Each of us is needed to make the community “shalem” – to make us whole. As evidenced by the experiences of second-graders, once the stumbling blocks are chipped away and people realize that we are all the same, the doors will open even wider for those who are perceived as different by the Jewish community. Help us spread this message through an annual celebration of the National Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Awareness Shabbat.
Alexis Kashar is a civil rights and special education attorney in Scarsdale, NY, and President of the Jewish Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Resource Center (JDRC).