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Episode 14 Transcript

SPEAKERS

Steve Weiner, Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff, Gary Waleik

Gary Waleik  00:00

Hi. I’m Gary Waleik,

Gary Waleik  00:04

And this is Lamplighters: Stories from Chabad emissaries on the Jewish frontier.

Gary Waleik  00:12

Life as a Chabad 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.

Gary Waleik  00:40

In episode 13 of Lamplighters, we heard the story of Steve Wiener, a 66 year old deaf Jew from Brooklyn. He was frustrated by dismissive attitudes among some in the community toward Deaf people, and the limited opportunities he felt he had to live and learn as a Jew.

Gary Waleik  00:58

After telling himself that he was done for good with Judaism, He embarked on a distinguished academic career that would earn him a PhD in education, and prominent positions at Gallaudet University in Washington DC, the only institute of higher learning in the world for deaf people. But then, about 10 years ago, he met Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff.

Gary Waleik  01:22

A while later in 2013, when wiener was provost at Gallaudet Soudakoff made an appointment to meet wiener in his office to discuss organizing a Hanukkah event there.

Steve Weiner  01:34

And I just thought, this is a message from Hashem. He’s been sent here to come talk to me. And we talked and talked and talked. He was not at all judgmental, not in the least bit. He understood me. He understood that I married someone who wasn’t Jewish and that we raised our children not Jewish, and he was open to me regardless.

Gary Waleik  01:54

I interviewed Steve wiener with the help of sign language translators, Jessica Ames, and Craig Fogle. Wieners translation is read by Schmuel Bolan SUTA coughs is read by Fogle.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  02:06

When I met Steve, he was at the pinnacle of his career. He was married, he had children, he had everything going for him. Despite all that, he couldn’t find his connection to Judaism. He felt like it was miles away.

Gary Waleik  02:19

Steve, who had been a very bright kid, wanted to learn deeper Jewish texts than what he had learned up until his bar mitzvah. But he had no one to do that with. And he felt isolated.

Steve Weiner  02:31

I felt like a second class citizen growing up in the Jewish world. And after my Bar Mitzvah, it was really like, bye, bye. You know, you’re done.

Gary Waleik  02:39

But a long talk with Soudakoff had re energized him.

Steve Weiner  02:43

He made me feel so welcome. And I was like, Wow, a Hasidic Rabbi welcoming me as I am, welcoming me just as a Jewish person.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  02:55

I think maybe I was a positive role model, or an example of a Jewish Deaf person who felt connected to Judaism.

Steve Weiner  03:03

And I was so inspired by our conversation. And he asked me for help in setting up a nine foot menorah, and having a Hanukkah service outside. And I just said, absolutely, yes, let’s do it.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  03:18

He sprung into action to help us and really shepherded the process forward to have a big public celebration of Jewish identity. Prior to that, all the Jewish celebrations on campus had been very low key and understated. And when I got there and wanted to make a splash, with a big public display, nine foot hanukkiah for all to see. Initially, it ruffled some feathers.

Gary Waleik  03:48

Why would a Hanukkah celebration in Washington have ruffled feathers?

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  03:52

Oh, brother, I, it’s politics. In DC. Everything is politics.

Gary Waleik  03:59

Rabbi Soudakoff says that first menorah lighting at Gallaudet gave Jewish students there an opportunity to express their identity on campus. He credited Steve Wiener with making it happen.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  04:12

We’ve connected time and time again. We’ve studied together over zoom, and have had some fantastic experiences together

Steve Weiner  04:20

Torah, in depth discussions about Mishna and studying Rashi’s work.

Gary Waleik  04:24

Wiener says he tried to learn my Maimonidies Guide for the Perplexed when he was 20 years old, and two more times when he was older, but each time he was on his own. He was, well, perplexed.

Steve Weiner  04:37

But now I’m going to try to read it again. And it’s going to be very different, because I know that I have Rabbi Soudakoff to talk it over with.

Gary Waleik  04:48

As Soudakoff was meeting Deaf Jews and helping them connect to their heritage in the US, he was also learning how Jews around the world were underserved. In 2013 when he was just 22 years old, he was approached by a total stranger at a Shabbos dinner in Queens. The man was an older Russian gentlemen, and he was deaf.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  05:09

And he came right up to me and said, “You need to start a camp in Moscow. There are hundreds of deaf children in Russia, Jewish Deaf children who need a place to go, they need to run free and have a camp to go to”.

Gary Waleik  05:24

Soudakoff told the man that he knew no Russian, and that the idea was impossible. But the man was insistent.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  05:31

And after Shabbat, I thought, you know what, I’ll humor him. I wrote an email to the Chief Rabbi of Russia, and I never thought I’d hear back but I sent off the email. And I got an answer within hours. “Sure, we’d love that. How can we help?”.

Gary Waleik  05:48

The next summer Soudakoff opened Camp Gan Israel in Moscow. It began with just two deaf children. The camp now serves about 40 Boys and Girls each year.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  05:58

This past summer, we had a camp in Tbilisi, Georgia, a place where kids could come and enjoy themselves, have fun, and learn, and have the opportunity to grow. A program like that gives them the fuel to connect to their Jewish identity year round.

Gary Waleik  06:15

Rabbi Soudakoff grew as well. He can now sign in Russian and Hebrew, and Yiddish.

Gary Waleik  06:22

Even as he was helping deaf Jews break down communication barriers. Soudakoff was dealing with stereotypes about deaf people. For about three years, he had been looking for a marriage partner. In 2011. He went to a matchmaker in Lakewood, New Jersey,

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  06:38

This was somebody who specialized in making matches for people with diverse special needs. She said, “Yehoshua would you be willing to date somebody in a wheelchair?” And I said, “I don’t understand the question”. And she said, “Well, you know, you have a disability, maybe it would be a good match, it seems obvious to me”. But to me, it wasn’t obvious. Disability is not even part of the equation. It’s a linguistic thing. I said, “Look, I have no problem with dating any kind of diverse person with any kind of need. But I don’t want to date somebody that I would need an interpreter to communicate with”.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  07:23

I don’t see deafness as a disability. We’re a linguistic minority. We just are a group of people who speak a different language and come from a different culture.

Gary Waleik  07:34

With that in mind, Soudakoff founded the American base to Jewish Deaf foundation in 2014. The Foundation offers innovative programs in sign language to Jews all around the world.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  07:45

When you’re in an all deaf environment, everything is through direct communication. So questions and answers can flow freely. When someone has that experience, I believe that empowers them to go participate in an environment where maybe they are the only deaf person, because they’ve had enough formative experiences where they can participate in a predominantly hearing environment, and feel like they can hold their own.

Gary Waleik  08:10

While he was blazing new trails for the Jewish Deaf community, Soudakoff was still struggling to find a match. A friend of Soudakoffs tried repeatedly to set him up with a deaf woman in Israel. He procrastinated for months, putting the needs of his campers and students ahead of his own. But his friend was relentless.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  08:33

And I’d been asked enough times that I finally said, All right, what do I have to lose? Let’s give it a shot.

Gary Waleik  08:39

In the summer of 2016, Soudakoff began to communicate with a deaf woman living in Israel. Her name was Cheftziba. But before she would agreed to meet him in person, she had a question.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  08:50

“Do you see yourself living in Israel?” And at the time, I wasn’t sure. And she made it quite clear from the beginning, If this is going to work, if we’re going to be married, if there’s a future for us, it’s going to be in Israel.

Gary Waleik  09:04

So Soudakoff made the trip to Israel to meet Cheftziba. They went on a date, quickly hit it off, and the match was made. They were married in early 2017. And now raise a young daughter in Israel, of course.

Gary Waleik  09:21

The Soudakoffs began working with Israel’s deaf community. In 2018. They established “Chushim ben Dan” in Rishon L’tzion. It’s the official Chabad center of the deaf and hard of hearing community.

Gary Waleik  09:35

But what exactly is the significance of the name Chushim Ben Dan?

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  09:39

Chushim ben Dan is the only character in the Tanach that is identified as deaf. In all of Jewish tradition, we have this one character to look to. And I was inspired by his story,

Gary Waleik  09:54

but there’s another reason the Soudakoffs chose that name

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  09:57

in Hebrew, the acronym of Chushim ben Dan actually forms the word Chabad. So it just seemed natural. It just made sense.

Gary Waleik  10:10

So how does Chushim Ben Dan help deaf Jews in Israel?

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  10:14

Like many Chabad houses, we have gatherings for Shabbat, for holidays, we have summer camp opportunities, we have children’s programs, we have programs for senior citizens, we take trips, we do workshops, we have one on one mentorship and lessons, Bar & Bat Mitzvah lessons. Everything under the sun is what we do. We provide opportunities for every deaf and hard of hearing Jew to actively participate in their Jewish life. Our program provides an opportunity for our community members for deaf and hard of hearing Jewish individuals to become active participants, to become leaders in their community, to make things happen.

Gary Waleik  10:57

The Soudakoffs hard work brings with it unique challenges. For instance, during Rosh Hashanah, how does one help deaf Jews fulfill the obligation of hearing shofar?

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  11:08

Well, I can’t give you one answer, because deaf people are diverse. There are some people who wear hearing aids. There are some people who use cochlear implants, and may have some residual hearing. And so they experience it phonetically. And there are different opinions and interpretations of what it takes to satisfy that commandment. If you’re listening through hearing aid or a cochlear implant, that may be one way to do it.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  11:33

I am not a hearing aid user. I don’t have a cochlear implant. But what I like to do is stand next to the person who’s blowing that shofar and let them blow it right into my ear. I can hear a little something. And that’s meaningful to me. It’s the faintest of sounds, but I can hear it and I connect.

Gary Waleik  11:50

Back in the US Steve Wiener serves on boards for the Jewish Deaf Resource Center, the Jewish Deaf Congress, the Maryland School for the Deaf, and the New York School for the Deaf.

Steve Weiner  12:01

I’m involved with the civil rights movement, fighting for the rights of deaf people. And I’m involved with deaf education with the goal of improving the experience of deaf children.

Gary Waleik  12:10

But what about the goal of improving his own experience? Here’s a story about that.

Gary Waleik  12:19

Not long after the Menorah lighting Steve wiener helped to make a reality on the Gallaudet campus, he was walking with his brother and his son on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Steve Weiner  12:29

And it was Friday night, and it was getting darker outside. And a Hasidic man came up to me and said, “Was your mother Jewish?” And I said, “Yes.” And I had my brother there. And my brother said, “yes, our mother was Jewish.” And I said, “Well, my son’s not.” And he said, “it doesn’t matter”.

Gary Waleik  12:47

Soon, Wiener and his brother and son entered a basement shul. Remember that Steve had, in his own words, left the Jewish community decades ago. He hadn’t attended a minyan, since his bar mitzvah.

Steve Weiner  13:00

And my brother and I were the ninth and 10th people. So then they finally could start their service.

Gary Waleik  13:07

Steve says his brother knew little about Jewish afternoon and evening prayers.

Steve Weiner  13:11

And so I was explaining to my brother what to do, when to sit, and bow, and all of that. And he had his prayer book upside down. And I found a prayer book in English for him. And my son was watching all of this. And when the service was over, and we left, my son said something very important to me. He said, “Dad, I’ve never seen you that happy”. He said, “Your eyes were shining”.

Gary Waleik  13:38

Steve credits Soudakoff with rekindling his Jewish flame. He says he’s never met anyone like him.

Steve Weiner  13:45

He has the light of the shechina emanating from his soul. He is armed with knowledge, and with love of learning, and love of Hashem, And Hashem’s people. The Rabbi, he’s really my biggest supporter.

Gary Waleik  14:00

Rabbi Yaehoshua Soudakoff is just 30 years old. He wants to help create more community leaders. To do that, he and Cheftziba want to expand Chushim Ben Dan, which he says needs a new building to call its own. For now, they will continue to operate in their small rented space and to meet as many people as they can.

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  14:21

I think it all comes down to leading by personal example. So just by meeting people and having them meet me, has an impact. It changes the way they view the world, and what they think is possible, and they go out into the world and just blossom from there.

Gary Waleik  14:36

So Rabbi Soudakoff, what’s next for you?

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  14:40

More counseling, more teaching, more encouraging!

Gary Waleik  14:44

I already know the answer to this question, but I’m going to ask it anyway. Are you satisfied with what you’ve been able to accomplish so far?

Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff  14:52

I’ve never met a Chabad Shliach who’s satisfied with what they’ve done so far.

Gary Waleik  15:00

A full transcript of this episode, and also of part one of our story about Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff can be found at lubavitch.com.

Gary Waleik  15:13

 I’m Gary Waleik. Thanks for listening to Lamplighters, stories from Chabad emissaries on the Jewish frontier.

Gary Waleik  15:23

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 about 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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