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Episode 13 Audio + Transcript: Lamplighters

SPEAKERS

Steve Weiner, Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff, Gary Waleik

Gary Waleik  00:00

Hi. I’m Gary Waleik, and this is Lamplighters – stories from Chabad emissaries on the Jewish frontier. Life as an emissary is often joyous, but it can be unpredictable and even dangerous. Chabad has become a ubiquitous presence in every corner of the world. But behind every Chabad house are emissaries, regular people striving to transcend their circumstances and the community that supports and relies on them. These are their stories.

Steve Weiner is 66 years old. He grew up where Ocean Parkway and Avenue P meets in what he calls the heart of Jewish Brooklyn. He was raised by Eastern European immigrants. His entire family lived within the same four or five blocks. And they were very involved in Jewish life.

Steve Weiner  00:58

But as a deaf boy with deaf parents, even though we were in the heart of everything, and we saw everything, we might as well have lived quite far away, because we didn’t have access due to the language barrier.

Gary Waleik  01:09

And here’s where I should say that Steve winter prefers using an interpreter rather than his own voice. So when I interviewed him, it was with the assistance of two American Sign Language interpreters, Jessica Ames, and Craig Fogel. The voice of Steve wiener is provided by voice actor Shmuel Bolen. But back to the story. Steve says there were some opportunities for Jewish learning in the early 60s.

Steve Weiner  01:35

By the time I was six, my grandmother and grandfather tried to send me to Hebrew school to study. But I didn’t understand what was happening there.

Gary Waleik  01:43

That was Rabbi David Eliezer Rabinowitz, a school for Deaf Jewish kids on Eastern Parkway. But Steve, who is naturally curious, was driving the faculty a bit crazy. The last straw was when he asked about dinosaurs and cavemen during a lesson about the accounts of creation in Genesis,

Steve Weiner  02:03

and the teacher told my family that I asked too many questions, and they didn’t want me to continue going to Hebrew school.

Gary Waleik  02:09

When Steve was eight years old, he attended the newly created Temple Beth or’s once a week your Shiva program and prepared for his bar mitzvah. And he studied some basic subjects with his grandfather. But he says what he was learning was too simple and straightforward. He was a smart kid, and he wanted something deeper, he engaged with a lot of deep texts on his own.

Steve Weiner  02:33

I studied maimonides and Mayor of Ruthenberg and Judah, HaNasi, and Rav and Shmuel, I read all of these on my own, but with no support. But I didn’t have a study partner or Chavrusa, it was like I was behind a wall, all on my own, just reading. And i didn’t have any back and forth with anyone. And can you imagine me growing up with no one to talk about Rashi with? no one to discuss these things, I was exposing myself to so many things. You know, I was parched.

Gary Waleik  03:10

 Steve learned that way for the next few years.

Steve Weiner  03:14

And you know, it wasn’t motivating after a while. So basically, my connection to Judaism really became secondary in my life.

Gary Waleik  03:23

Weiner finished his public school education and went to college. He says he joined Hillel there mostly so we could get good New York lox. But he always had the repressed feeling that he should, in his words, “give Jewish life a second chance”.  He even applied to rabbinical school.

Steve Weiner  03:42

I won’t tell you where I applied. But I did apply to rabbinical school. And they said well, you don’t speak and you don’t know enough Hebrew. I really don’t know if you can learn Hebrew adequately and so forth. So that pretty much close the door for me in my search. I was so frustrated.

Gary Waleik  03:58

when he was just 25 years old. Steve weiner told himself that he was done for good with Judaism.

Steve Weiner  04:05

There was no reason for me to stay as a member of the Jewish community if I couldn’t actively be a part of it.

Gary Waleik  04:11

 It wasn’t until decades later that he met the Chabad Shliach who opened the door of Jewish learning, Jewish living and inclusion wide enough for Steve to even consider a return. Yehoshua Soudakoff was born in May 1991 To deaf parents.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  04:34

My mother’s family did not have deaf people in it. Nor did my father’s they were each the only deaf member of their families.

Gary Waleik  04:41

Soudakoff is also being translated by Jessica Ames and Craig Fogel, with Craig reading Soudakoffs answers

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  04:48

and so they expected that their kids would not be deaf that their kids would be hearing and go figure. I was born.  I didn’t respond to noises in my environment. I responded to visual stimuli and I was tested, and they found out I was deaf and their lives were changed

Gary Waleik  05:05

the Soudakoffs next four children were deaf, too. their parents had experienced difficulties in hearing classrooms. So they knew that they needed to fight hard to ensure a proper education for their children.  So when Yahushua was just six years old, the Soudakoffs moved from their home in LA to the valley, so that he could be in a program that was suitable to his needs.  When he began kindergarten there, he found himself in a class with 20 hearing kids, and 10 Deaf children.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  05:34

In my school, there were teachers, a hearing teacher who spoke English and a teacher who signed, and so there was a signing environment that was really conducive to a proper education.

Gary Waleik  05:48

And when it came to a Jewish education,

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  05:50

my parents were traditional, not very religious, but they valued the traditions and wanted to bring me up with the Jewish life.

Gary Waleik  05:57

The Soudakoffs observed holidays at home, and Yehoshua and his siblings learned family stories passed down through the generations, but he had no formal religious education. But there was a very special bar mitzvah

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  06:14

for that experience. My parents hired a private tutor who taught me to read Hebrew and read from the Torah. And so I learned the fundamentals of basic Hebrew from that tutor.

Gary Waleik  06:26

You had your Bar Mitzvah at the Kotel, that must have been an amazing experience for you and your family and friends.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  06:33

Oh, absolutely incredible experience. It happens on my first trip to Israel, I’ll never forget it. I remember being 13 years old and touching down in the Holy Land and thinking, My goodness, everyone here is Jewish like me. Everywhere I went, it was astounding. I had never had that experience before.

Gary Waleik  06:53

The young Soudakoff was developing a new passion for Judaism.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  06:57

After my Bar Mitzvah, I returned home. And back to my public school. You know, for many children, Jewish education stops after the bar mitzvah. But for me, I thought, you know, I’m just getting started. Why is it over already, I wanted to continue to learn I was eager to learn more.  So there was an after school religious program or Hebrew education program, where there was access through an interpreter that my parents had to fight for. And the school district paid for that for an interpreter, who had enough knowledge of Judaica to interpret in that setting. And so I did that for a while, but I wasn’t satisfied.

Gary Waleik  07:39

Earlier, we heard Steve weiner say that he felt as if he was learning behind a wall. Yahushua Soudakoff says that he felt like he was living in a bubble.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  07:48

Most Deaf Jewish people have absolutely no access to their religion or their heritage, because their parents and their grandparents think, “Oh, it’s too hard to communicate”, or “the concepts are too complex”. “I can’t explain it to you” “there’s a language barrier” “We’ll tell you when you’re older”, “you don’t need to know it’s not that important”.  Often it was too hard to communicate some of the richer concepts and traditions because of the language barriers.  And what happens is, those Jewish children grow up into adults who don’t feel connected to their heritage at all.

Gary Waleik  08:24

But Soudakoff wanted more connection. He applied to three Hebrew high schools in Los Angeles. ,

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  08:30

Of those three schools. How many were eager to have me attend? What do you think, Gary? I see Gary holding up three fingers. Yes, all of them were eager to have me. But I couldn’t go because it wasn’t accessible. None of them would provide sign language interpretation, that accommodation is too expensive for most families. And so it was untenable.  And my experience is just one example of the obstacles there are to Jewish Deaf education. There certainly are people who want it. There are people who want to provide it. But bridging that gap still remains an issue.  That’s when I heard about the yeshiva in Toronto.

Gary Waleik  09:14

That yeshiva is nefesh dovid. It’s dedicated to young Jewish men with hearing loss.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  09:19

I found out that as a deaf person, I could be successful there. And I was very excited by that prospect.  So I went to go visit, flew up there to visit and was amazed. There were so many deaf people just like me, Deaf Jews, Deaf religious Jews, who I could identify with. Young people! And I felt suddenly not so alone.  I returned home, and I bugged my parents to death to please send me and let me go, but they wanted me to stay close to home. I persisted though, I really wanted to go and over the summer, I eventually convinced them, and they sent me on my way.

Gary Waleik  10:00

Yehoshua received his first real Jewish education at nefesh dovid.  there, he felt completely connected to Judaism. Yehoshua and his fellow students even helped invent ASL signs for Gemara terms.  So how did you go about doing that?

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  10:17

So as a student at Yeshiva, I was surrounded by students who came from many different places, there were some from America, some from Israel, some from France, South America. And so each of them came with their own native sign languages. The language of instruction was American Sign Language. So we weren’t taught in Hebrew, but the texts were in Hebrew. So I read Hebrew texts, and didn’t have the signs for that vocabulary.  So we began to experiment and play with language, and come up with signs for the Gemara terms.

Gary Waleik  10:54

Okay, but please give me an example of how that works.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  10:58

When I think of the word Gemara, I think of an old man davening, leaning over a book, you know, tearing through the pages of the Talmud, looking for knowledge. And so the sign became the sign of a thumb, turning a page, because that’s what it looked like in my mind when I thought of the word. And so we came up with signs like that for the images that those words conjured up. And so that’s how we had access to those Hebrew texts in sign language.  Those three years in yeshiva, I would say, three of the best years of my life.

Gary Waleik  11:36

Yehoshua finished yeshiva and returned to LA.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  11:39

And I realize what I experienced, was actually quite different from that of the experience of most Jewish Deaf individuals.  And I realized, because I was fortunate enough to learn so much, I wanted to pay it forward and share that with other people. So friends of mine started making video vlogs in sign language, where we would share stories and information, and they just caught fire. People were so excited to learn things that most people take for granted, but deaf people just never had access to. And because they were popular, we kept making more.  There was a deep need for access to education, about the Jewish religion and Jewish customs and traditions in sign language. And that blossomed into community programs and in person interactions.  For me, the calling was clear. I knew what I wanted to do. I knew what I had to do, because I saw there was a need, and there was a desire. It was, it was my calling. It really was a calling.

Gary Waleik  12:43

When Soudakoff was younger, his parents told him that he’d become a lawyer. He went along with that for a while.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  12:49

And I got older and realized, no, that’s not what I want. I want to be a rabbi.

Gary Waleik  12:55

Soudakoff applied to and was accepted by Chovevei Torah in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. it was there that he found his place in the Chabad universe.  He said it was a perfect fit for him and all his fellow students. And what we did was in class, the teachers would interact with me in a group, but after class, they would spend extra time with me and write notes back and forth with me with pen and paper.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  13:23

I am so grateful to those teachers who made the effort to really include me and make the program accessible. It was hard. Basically they did twice what was required of them.  Yahushua Soudakoff became a rabbi in 2013. By now he was brimming with Jewish knowledge and reaching members of the Jewish Deaf community around the world.

Gary Waleik  13:48

Here’s a story about one of them.  Around 2010, Steve Wiener, the man who three decades before had walked away from the Jewish community, met Rabbi Soudakoff for the first time. He doesn’t remember the exact circumstances. But over the next couple of years, they were meeting from time to time at the Washington society for the Jewish deaf and the Jewish deaf Foundation, which Soudakoff founded.  Steve was beginning to feel more connected to Jewish life, but his wife and kids weren’t Jewish, and he wasn’t sure he was ready to come all the way back.  But in 2012, their paths would cross in a more significant way. Soudakoff had been communicating with Washington DC Rabbi LEvi Shemtov about the possibility of establishing a new Chabad house in the area,

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  14:39

and Rabbi Shemtov suggested why not have a big public Hanukkah celebration with a chanukiah lighting?

Gary Waleik  14:45

Soudakoff loved the idea, and he wanted to include deaf Jews, and he knew where to find them.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  14:52

There are pockets of Deaf communities around America and there’s a very large one in Washington DC near Gallaudet, university. Gallaudet University is the only institution of higher learning for deaf and hard of hearing people.

Gary Waleik  15:08

Most of Gallaudet students, faculty and administrators are deaf, and Soudakoff knew that many of them were Jews, including then President Alan Hurwitz. But when Shemtov shared the idea to organize a menorah lighting, it was only a week before Hanukkah. There wasn’t a lot of time to plan the celebration.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  15:27

However, the following year, we started planning much earlier. We began months in advance, contacting members of the faculty and staff asking for permission to have a hanukkiah lighting. We even needed the provost to pitch in and help.

Gary Waleik  15:43

I wanted to make this happen. I wanted it to be successful.  So Soudakoff made an appointment with Gallaudet’s Provost,

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  15:50

and the provost at the time was Steve weiner.

Gary Waleik  15:54

Wiener had excelled academically, earning a PhD in education from American University and working as a Professor Dean, and now a provost at Gallaudet, but his life would soon change courtesy of the Chabad Shliach, who had already become a force within the Jewish Deaf world.

Steve Weiner  16:14

And Rabbi Soudakoff stopped by my office not long after. And I just thought, this is a message from Hashem. “He’s been sent here to come talk to me”.

Gary Waleik  16:31 the story of what happens next will be presented in Episode 14 of Lamplighters.  A full transcript of this episode can be found on lubavitch.com. I’m Gary Waleik.  Thanks for listening to Lamplighters stories from Chabad emissaries on the Jewish frontier. We welcome your questions and comments about what you’ve just heard on Lamplighters. Please email us at podcast@lubavitch.com. And if you know of a great story involving Chabad emissaries or the people they inspire, please let us know about them. That’s podcast@lubavitch.com. This is a Lubavitch international podcast.

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