Chabad for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community celebrated their first anniversary last month. Based in the central Israeli city of Rishon LeZion and directed by California-born Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff and his Israeli wife Cheftziba, this unique Chabad center serves a large, but niche, community.
“We are not bound by geographical location, or even age group, yet we share a common language and culture,” Rabbi Yehoshua says. In an interview with Lubavitch.com, Rabbi Yehoshua, explains through an ASL interpreter, how their community isn’t bound to a specific locale, even though Rishon does have the greatest concentration of Deaf in the country because of its proximity to two renowned elementary and middle school programs for Deaf in nearby Nes Tziyona.
To serve this diverse community, the Soudakoffs started Chabad for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community. They named their organization Chushim, a reference to Chushim ben Dan, a biblical figure who was Deaf and whose name, helpfully, forms the acronym Chabad. Additionally fitting, the word chushim means “senses” in Hebrew.
The organization visits Deaf schools around Israel to teach students about Jewish life, and tutor students for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. They deliver adult Torah classes exclusively in sign language and lead holiday parties and events all around the country. Rabbi Yehoshua has officiated at numerous weddings of Deaf couples at home and abroad.
Chushim hosted their first High Holiday services this year. The cantor was hard of hearing and signed some of the cantilations while Rabbi Yehoshua, using sign language, led the congregation in the appropriate responses. As a participant blew the shofar, fellow congregants placed their hand on the shofar to “hear” it through the vibrations. Attendees came from all over the country, and the Soudakoffs hosted several overnight guests so they would not have to travel on the Holy days.
“Many Deaf try to participate in hearing events and communities, but they get frustrated at not being able to communicate with those around them. They feel ignored and end up walking away, leaving their families and possibly future generations starved of Jewish community,” Rabbi Yehoshua says. Based on the positive response at the High Holidays, the couple would like to turn this into a permanent arrangement. They hope it won’t be too long before their community has its own synagogue, led by a Deaf rabbi, with Deaf officiants and congregants.Participants at a Chanukah party hosted by Rabbi Soudakoff and the Jewish Deaf Foundation (Photo credit:Yafit Yochai Khalifa)
Having been brought up in an American home that was both, “Deaf and also very Jewish,” Rabbi Yehoshua was surprised at the resistance the couple met when they would introduce themselves to Israelis. In Israel, as in the USA, there are an estimated ten to fifteen thousand Jewish Deaf, yet the perception both from within the Deaf community and from general society was noticeable. “Perhaps it was the American Dream you-can-be-anything attitude that was missing, but we kept coming across this seeming cognitive dissonance. In their mind you could be a Rabbi or Deaf but not both.”
This difference in attitude reinforced the Soudakoff’s drive to create positive change by being Deaf leaders themselves and by encouraging others to take an active role in their community.
They established an international camp that last year attracted thirty Deaf teens from Israel, Russia, Europe, and the U.S. They hired all Deaf staff, with the goal of developing Jewish identity and leadership skills among Deaf youth. “We want to model Jewish Deaf Leadership so they know that none of those descriptors precludes the others,” Rabbi Yehoshua says.
Rabbi Yehoshua looks forward to reaching even more Deaf with this message in the coming years with support from both the Deaf and hearing communities. “We have to keep sharing the light by word of hand,” he signs with a laugh.
For more information and to offer your support, please email Rabbi Yehoshua at Rabbi@JewishDeafFoundation.org.Cheftziba Soudakoff (far left) with campers at a Summer Camp reunion in Israel