Many of us do not consider that some people have no ability to speak or hear. This can cause them limitations when wanting to take part in the rital of Jewish prayer. American Sign Language is their method of communication. Prayer has replaced the animal sacrifices that were once prevalent during the Temple period. Each prayer laid out in a synagogue service has a specific melody, and is lead by a member of the clergy. Because of the musical nature of services, Jews who are deaf or hard-of-hearing have extreme difficulty in participating in synagogue life. The inability to participate in the fundamentals of Jewish life causes one to feel isolated from the community. It is because of this isolation that so many deaf Jews are either non-observant or completely assimilated into surrounding practices and cultures. Jewish Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing children are often unable to attend religious schools or Jewish Day schools. It is during childhood that a person’s identity is formed, and with the lack of resources for deaf children, their Jewish identity flounders. As a result, they feel uncomfortable participating in synagogue life and are unable to celebrate major lifecycle events such as being called to read the Torah when becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah (a Jewish rite of passage) thus having no foundation to connect them with Jewish life.

Currently, there are few synagogues that offer ASL (American Sign Language) interpretation for deaf members. There have been several attempts over the last century to solve this problem, culminating in the Jewish Deaf Community Center in Southern California, Temple Beth Solomon in Tarzana, California; a synagogue created specifically for the Jewish Deaf community of Los Angeles, the Hebrew Seminary of the Deaf in Skokie, Illinois, as well as others. Though even with these organizations, the community is suffering. All over the United States are deaf and hard-of-hearing Jews who have little to no education due to a lack of resources available.

So what needs to be done to solve this? The greater Jewish community as a whole, regardless of denomination needs to work together in order that ASL interpretation is available in synagogues. The community needs to encourage its members to study ASL in the hope that many will be motivated to become interpreters. By learning to communicate with each other, we can provide the best education for ourselves and our children; allowing them to feel just how beautiful our traditions and rituals are. Every Jew should be able to connect with his or her people and culture. No one should be pushed away for any reason..

On Aug. 1, Rabbi Darby Leigh started his tenure as leader of Congregation Kerem Shalom in Concord, Mass. Leigh is “profoundly deaf.” Without his hearing aids, he is unable to distinguish sounds below 90 decibels (the average range of a hearing person is 0-120 decibels, with speech being somewhere around 60 decibels). With his new position, Leigh joins a very small cadre: He will be just the second deaf rabbi to lead a hearing congregation in America. Leigh’s position signifies the strides being made toward inclusion of deaf individuals in the larger Jewish community, according to advocates. In the clip below Rabbi Darby points out some of the difficulties we may not realize exist in Jewish prayer to those who have to use American Sign Language. Here he explains the Shema and issues that arise in this prayer.