People with hearing loss are often excluded from full participation in Jewish life, impacting not only the deaf or hard of hearing individual, but their entire family. According to Alexis Kesher, President of the Jewish Deaf Resource Center, once a person with hearing loss is denied access, “the whole family is often without access for generations to come.”
This Shabbat, synagogues from across the United States are taking a vital step to welcoming the deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals and their families back into the fold by participating in the first ever, Jewish Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Awareness Shabbat.
The special Shabbat focus is intended both to raise awareness of the difficulties faced by Jewish people with hearing loss and their families and to encourage inclusion of people of all ages with hearing impairments into all aspects of Jewish life.
Traditional rabbinical law states a deaf person is unable to fulfill the full rights and obligations of a practicing Jew and links deafness to mental incompetence. Last year, however, in a landmark response for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards voted unanimously that a person who communicates via sign language is no longer to be considered mentally incapacitated under Jewish law and are completely capable of completing mitvot in their preferred language.
The decision, whose one year anniversary is also this week, paves the way for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community to take a bigger part in mitzvot and Jewish life. However, many obstacles to access still remain. One deaf observer to the CJLS meeting where the issue of deafness was being debated made this passionate plea for the removal of the barriers preventing the deaf and hard-of-hearing from full inclusion, “Let us have Torah too, that is all we ask.”
Yet as Rabbi Rick Jacobs, incoming President of the Union of Reform Judaism notes, “too often our Jewish community has shut its hearts and doors to those with special needs.” Calling on the larger Jewish community to embrace those with hearing loss, Jacobs argues that an inclusive Jewish community is what God intended. ”May our communities speedily and soon follow G-d’s lead as we remove the barriers that still keep too many outside our sacred embrace. Practicing inclusion is a Mitzvah-a sacred obligation.”
The Jewish Deaf and Harding of Hearing Shabbat, initiated by the Jewish Deaf Resource Center, aims to raise awareness and help Jewish congregations begin the conversation about how they can better include those with hearing loss.