Betsy “Bets” Wohl (right) uses sign language to communicate with  interpreter Christina Healy. (David Stuck)
Betsy “Bets” Wohl (right) uses sign language to communicate with interpreter Christina Healy. (David Stuck)

The dark and rainy weather last Friday, June 7, didn’t dampen the spirits of the close to 80 people who gathered at the Pearlstone Center in Reisterstown for the third annual Shabbaton for the Deaf-Blind.

The Shabbaton, which ran through noon on Sunday, June 9, included workshops, educational presentations, discussions, Shabbat rituals, prayers, dinner, Havdalah service and an activity at Kayam Farm.

The 17 Deaf-Blind participants, their support service providers, interpreters and staff members, some of whom are deaf, came from all over the U.S. and Israel for a weekend of communal learning, prayer, culture, nature and community.

For people with hearing and sight, negotiating the world as a blind or deaf person is hard to imagine. Being both deaf and blind is a further stretch. For them, according
to Sheryl Michalowski, one of the Shabbaton’s co-chairs, who is deaf, life is incredibly challenging.

Michalowski, who works as deaf liaison/legal assistant for the Eisenberg and Baum law firm in New York City, the Deaf-Blind often find themselves isolated, both from their communities at large and from their Jewish communities. The Shabbaton for the Deaf-Blind, funded by the Orthodox Union’s Our Way and the Macks Center for Jewish Education, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, offers participants a rare opportunity to share a Shabbat celebration designed with their needs in mind.

Dr. Sheryl Cooper, a co-chair and coordinator of the Deaf Studies Program at Towson University, explained that the Shabbaton planners tried to make everything “as accessible and Deaf-Blind friendly as possible.”

It’s a daunting task, and Cooper said planning this year’s Shabbaton took approximately 18 months.

In addition to providing interpreters and a support service provider to each participant, the co-chairs made certain that materials were presented in braille and large print, and that all workshops, prayer services and Jewish ritual activities were conducted in sign language.

Each Deaf-Blind individual was paired with an interpreter who possessed skills that corresponded to the participant’s particular disability. For example, interpreters used tactile sign language to communicate with those who are completely blind and deaf. In this type of signing, the Deaf-Blind individual holds the hands of the interpreter, feeling the interpreter’s hand movements as he or she signs. Meanwhile, individuals with “tunnel vision” need an interpreter to sign from a certain distance in order for the partially blind individual to see their hand movements.

One of the first activities of the weekend was challah braiding led by Yael Zelinger, also a Shabbaton co-chair and coordinator of Jewish Advocates for Deaf Education & Professional Development. Zelinger began the workshop by teaching the signs for some terms commonly associated with Shabbat. She also explained the significance of challah to the Shabbat celebration.

“Shabbat is a time to concentrate on Judaism and spirituality,” she told participants. “Challah represents manna from heaven — special food. It also reminds us of the temple,” said Zelinger.

After her explanation, participants were given lumps of dough, and Zelinger explained how to braid the challah. The challah-braiding activity, said Cooper, has always been among the participants’ favorite activities.

“It’s ideal for the Shabbaton, because it is a sensory activity that is also Jewish,” she explained.

Participants ate the challah they prepared at Shabbat dinner.

The theme for this year’s Shabbaton was Israel. It was chosen, explained Cooper, because the Shabbaton co-chairs have hopes of taking the group on a Deaf-Blind trip to Israel sometime in the future.

“We want to give them information about Israel before they go so they will have some concept of what it is like there,” said Michalowski. “We have three men [presenting at the Shabbaton] who will be talking about Israel, its history and what it’s like to be Deaf-Blind in Israel,” she said.

This was Dr. Jeff Bohrman’s third time coming to the Deaf-Blind Shabbaton. A retired pharmacist, Bohrman, who traveled to the Shabbaton from Columbus, Ohio, lost his sight and hearing because he suffers from Usher Syndrome, a condition that causes deafness and gradual vision loss that usually begins during adolescence. Several of the participants in the Shabbaton are at various stages of Usher Syndrome. Some are completely deaf and blind, and some have limited vision. Now completely blind and deaf, Bohrman uses tactile sign language to communicate. He said he especially enjoys the Jewish education component of the Shabbatonim.

“I love to learn about Judaism — the life-cycle events — and about Israel. I rarely go to synagogue because there is not always funding for an interpreter,” said Bohrman, who added he enjoys socializing and taking part in the workshops.

Betsy “Bets” Wohl, 60, became mostly blind and deaf as a result of the encephalitis she contracted as a child. While her parents acknowledged and took steps to help Wohl cope with her hearing deficit, it wasn’t until she was 19 that she discovered she was legally blind.

“They [my parents] concentrated on my hearing loss,” said Wohl, who lives in Washington, D.C. “I got a letter from National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, N.Y., saying I was blind, and I didn’t understand. I called my mother and she said, ‘Remember, you couldn’t see the blackboard?’ I could never understand why a little boy in the 23rd row could see everything, and I couldn’t see anything from the first row,” recalled Wohl.

Wohl said she has always wanted to be a social worker, but executive functioning challenges, also caused by encephalitis, have made it impossible for her to complete her master’s of social work so far. She has worked for the Department on Disability Services in Washington, D.C., as a vocational rehabilitation specialist for many years. Wohl said DDS has given her until 2015 to successfully complete her master’s. After that, it may choose to end her employment.

Wohl said her biggest reason for returning to the Shabbaton each year is to reconnect with the people she has met at previous Shabbatonim. She also likes seeing “new faces.” Wohl bemoaned the fact that she is the only deaf person at her D.C. temple.

“It is very lonely. I have an interpreter at my temple so I don’t know why other deaf people don’t come,” she said.

She proudly shared that she became a bat mitzvah in 1999.

“We had a class of 17: 14 hearing, one deaf and one Deaf-Blind. That was me,” she said, beaming.

Tobias Vogelstein, 21, of Baltimore, is among the younger attendants at the Shabbaton. Like Wohl and Bohrman, this is Vogelstein’s third year of participating in the weekend event. Vogelstein’s blindness and hearing loss was caused by a brain tumor. He said he particularly enjoyed the challah-making activity, and he liked playing “Jeopardy” at the Shabbaton last year. This year, Vogelstein had the honor of presenting the d’var Torah at Shabbat dinner.

Vogelstein’s mother, Debbie, who brought him to the Pearlstone Center Friday, said she thought an important aspect of the program was its social dimension.

“I remember last year — it was the first time Tobias met a young man approximately his age who had the same technical devices as he had. They were both highly intelligent people who had to negotiate the world with very advanced technology,” she said. “Tobias met a peer and made a friend.”

Simone Ellin is JT senior features reporter [email protected]

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here