Jewish Deafblind Adults Share Faith, Community at Shabbaton 2017

All of the deafblind attendees and the support service providers of the Deafblind Shabbaton 2017 (Photo by Sheryl Cooper)

Picture a bucolic weekend retreat with activities such as braiding challah, baking gingerbread cookies, prayer services, networking, the mitzvah of tefillin. Sounds like an ordinary Shabbaton, where Jews come together to learn and celebrate their collective heritage. But the participants who gathered June 16-18 at the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Reisterstown for the Deafblind Shabbaton 2017 were anything but ordinary to the casual observer. Although, for this often isolated group, leading as ordinary and active a life as possible is the goal.

This year, the biennial event attracted 18 adults with both hearing and visual impairment from as far away as Canada and Israel. It began 10 years ago, when Rabbi Eliezer Lederfeind and Sharon Siegel both approached Rabbi Larry Ziffer and Amian Kelemer of the Macks Center for Jewish Education in Baltimore and Dr. Sheryl Cooper of Towson University’s deaf studies program to start a Jewish deafblind Shabbaton.

Siegel, a service provider for deafblind people, saw a need for the event when talking with Jewish deafblind attendeesat a Deafblind camp in Maryland. And as program director of Our Way for Yachad/National Jewish Council for Disabilities, Lederfeind saw a gap in services when a deafblind man attended a Shabbaton for deaf people.

“He participated as much as he could, but it was obvious that our program for the deaf was really not all-inclusive for him,” Lederfeind said. “They needed their own type of Shabbaton to meet their needs. Working together with Dr. Sheryl Cooper, Yael Zelinger and many, many other people, we got the whole shebang together. There is a tremendous amount of work and volunteerism and fundraising that is being done to make this event work.”

Some of the participants use tactile sign language to meet each other in a speed-dating-style ice-breaker. (Photo by Sheryl Cooper)

To meet the needs of the 18 deafblind women and men who attended the three-day retreat, there were dozens of sign-language interpreters using voice, visual sign language and tactile sign language. There were support service providers (specially trained assistants) and hearing and deaf rabbis. The deafblind co-chair of the event was Sara Leah Kovacs.

For Leslie Foxman, volunteer- interpreter coordinator, the most memorable experience was a pro-tactile workshop, in which attendees learned a signing technique using increased touch to encourage more proactive and independent communication for deafblind people. “Every single person in that room was riveted to what was going on, with the participants first learning and then owning that method of communication feedback,” Foxman said. “Simply beautiful.”

Participants were from all denominations and enjoyed group activities that reinforced the theme, “Building a Jewish Deafblind Community,” including Shabbat services, d’var Torah discussions, prayer services, tefillin ceremonies, lighting Shabbat candles, challah and cookie making or just relaxing and talking together. There were also outdoor activities, such as nature walks.

“I think the greatest benefit [of the retreat] is the opportunity to connect with others who are like themselves, Jewish and deafblind. Many of our participants had no religious education growing up, and their only connection to Judaism is eating matzoh ball soup or challah,” Cooper said. “The opportunity to learn from deaf rabbis and deafblind peers is so rich and meaningful for them. They can ask questions directly and be answered in their own language (for many, American Sign Language is their first language). They can participate in religious experiences and discussions that move at a pace that allows them to understand what is going on, and emphasize the senses of taste, touch and smell.”

Participants can assume leadership roles that might not otherwise be open in the hearing and sighted community.

Steven Frank, a retired Gallaudet University librarian from Rockville, Md., is active in Maryland’s deafblind community. During the weekend, Frank sat down with another deafblind attendee, Kit England, to record a segment for her video blog.

“It has been a wonderful experience,” he said. “Deafblind people need to have a time to expand their Jewish education and learn about their Jewish culture and be able to socialize with each other — that’s very important. There are leadership opportunities too. I’m getting older, so I feel like younger people need to step into a leadership role. I see younger folks who are 18, 19, 20. So I’m hoping that it will keep going with the younger generation.”

All of the deafblind attendees of the Deafblind Shabbaton 2017 (Photo by Sheryl Cooper)

Deafblindness isolates people, so, Frank said, being able to commune with other deafblind people, and especially to meet deafblind Jews and learn from them, is very special.

“Some deafblind people aren’t comfortable with their prayer, but they try, and they’re encouraged. You don’t have to be Orthodox to pray,” he said. “It is open to all different sects of Judaism, and there’s also plenty of time to sit around and learn about your Judaism with rabbis. We’ve learned the prayer, sh’ma yisrael adonai eloheinu adonai echad.”

On Sunday morning, there was a tefillin ceremony, which Cooper said was a meaningful experience for the men.

“Some men had witnessed their fathers and grandfathers perform this ancient rite, whereas it was a brand new experience for others,” she said. “But all of the men who put on tefillin on Sunday morning and recited the prayers in the language of their choice felt a connection to God and to the Jewish people.”

“It is a tactile practice that they can experience just like everyone else,” said Yael Zelinger, Shabbaton coordinator and disability and inclusion associate at the Center for Jewish Education. “They say, or sign, a blessing and pose with pride, like a young bar mitzvah boy. This part is always inspiring to me.”

The women enjoyed lighting the Shabbat candles. “For some, this ties them to their past as they remember lighting Shabbat candles with their mothers or grandmothers,” Cooper said. “For others who have never lit candles, it brings them a way to feel connected to the Jewish people, as they stand in community with other women and repeat the ancient blessing.”

During a closing discussion about how to move the group forward, there was plenty of banter about the pros and cons of Facebook, how to set up group email and much deliberation over what name would best represent their community. Some suggestions were, the Deafblind Jewish Camp, the Deafblind Jewish Touch and the Jewish Deafblind Way.

“I want you to please remember to keep this simple,” said Jeffrey Bohrman, who led the discussion flanked by sign language and pro-tactile interpreters. Bohrman has a Ph.D. in pharmacology-physiology (among many other degrees) and has worked in vocational rehabilitation and technology for deafblind people in Ohio for decades. “Some people can’t read a lot at a time. They need to read in shorter bursts, so we need to make sure that we accommodate everybody’s needs. So, let’s think about engaging with each other, at least once a month for now, and then we can expand.”

Wrapping up the weekend, Cooper talked about an initiative to raise awareness and funds for a trip to Israel (met with enthusiastic approval), including a video sponsored by the Center for Jewish Education.

“Perhaps one of the biggest takeaways from the weekend is the realization that one can reach out to God in any language, including American Sign Language, Hebrew or English,” Cooper said. “Another equally important takeaway is that although there may be no critical mass of Jewish deafblind people in one city, there is a widespread population of Jewish deafblind people who are eager to come together, to share and learn together, in order to create their own community.”

For more information, visit

To watch Kit England’s interview with Steven Frank, visit For information on an upcoming book on Jewish law for the deafblind and others, contact or 212-613-8234. A Braille edition will be available.

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