by Abigail Pickus
When Yehoshua Soudakoff was born, his parents assumed he was hearing.
While both his parents are deaf – statistics indicated that their first born would be hearing.
“But after a few months, they realized that I was not responding to noise,” said the now 23-year-old Soudakoff. “They had me tested, and to their surprise, I was deaf too.” (His brother and sister, who followed over the next few years, are also deaf.)
Although his parents had relocated to a Jewish neighborhood in LA to be closer to a Jewish school, they had to reassess. How to give their child a strong Jewish education and usher him into the community when there were no resources available for deaf Jews?
And so his mother brought the deaf Jewish community to them. Literally.
Since he had to attend public school, in 1992 Soudakoff’s mother launched a Jewish nonprofit expressly for deaf Jews and their families. What became the Jewish Deaf Community Center offered everything from excursions to the local Jewish museum and a “kosher club” featuring kosher cuisines from around the world to holiday celebrations.
Even better, this community center took place right in the Soudakoff’s living room.
“This is what I grew up with – a Jewish Deaf community in my living room,” recalled Soudakoff.
He owed this experience to his mother’s perseverance and vision.
“I would indeed call my mother an activist. She made programs where there once was none. She raised awareness and interest of Judaism in the Deaf community. She went the extra mile to make sure that my siblings and I would be exposed to our Jewish heritage,” he added.
Now an adult, Soudakoff is following in his mother’s footsteps – in his own way.
A Rabbi, he is also the Co-founder of Jewish Deaf Multimedia, the only online resource for the deaf Jewish community, offering over 100 videos on everything from understanding Jewish holidays to parasha commentaries.
Recently, Soudakoff helped spearhead two summer camps for deaf Jewish boys, one in upstate New York and the other in Moscow.
There are currently between 10,000 and 15,000 deaf Jews in America and between 25,000 and 40,000 worldwide, according to Soudakoff.
But Soudakoff is quick to note that the term Deaf Jews refers to much more than hearing loss, which is why he capitalizes Deaf.
“When I say Deaf Jews, I am referring to those who are deaf and identify with Deaf culture,” he said. “This includes being part of a Deaf community, associating with other Deaf people, and communicating in sign language,” he said.
The term deaf, in fact, comprises a broad range of people - those who have limited or no hearing and who rely on various methods to overcome this disability, such as cochlear implants, hearing aids, lip-reading, sign language and cued speech.
In fact, around 10% of the US population (an estimated 30 million people) has some kind of hearing loss, but there are only around 500,000 culturally Deaf people in the US, according to Soudakoff.
“It is a culture, a community, and a perspective on life,” he continued. “For me, to embrace one’s deafness is to have a positive outlook on life. Instead of complaining about one’s inability to hear, there are deaf people (like me) who are proud to be Deaf and feel content. After all, we have a language and a community. We are comfortable with our own identities. What more do we need?”
He even cited an emerging field of study called “Deaf Gain,” where deafness is studied for its benefits to humankind.
Which isn’t to say that humankind is always receptive to the Deaf community.
When Soudakoff was becoming religious around his bar mitzvah age, he applied to three yeshivot in Los Angeles, his hometown. All of them said that they would be happy to accept him – but they did not have the funds to provide him an interpreter. Which is how, yet again, he ended up in public school. He had no alternative.
“I simply could not sit in a classroom in a Jewish school all day without understanding the teacher,” he said.
Finally, when he turned 15 he decided to study at Yeshivas Nefesh Dovid in Toronto, the only yeshiva in the world for deaf boys, and headed by a deaf principal whose grandfather was the first deaf rabbi in America.
There the students communicated through American Sign Language (ASL).
“My years in this yeshiva were truly one of the most formative years of my life. I picked up so much about what it means to live as a religious Deaf Jew. I was among my peers – Jewish Deaf boys who were just like me,” said Soudakoff, who later received rabbinic smicha at Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim Lubavitch – Chovevei Torah in Brooklyn, NY.
This experience took much commitment from both student and rabbinical school, as the yeshiva had never accommodated a deaf student before.
“When I applied to rabbinical school, I waited nervously for a response from the administration. Would they tell me upfront that they could not admit me or would they be accommodating?” he recalled.
When he heard back from the rosh yeshiva, he was told that they could see that he was a serious student and would happily accept him into the program.
For two years Soudakoff attended the program without assistance from an interpreter. Instead, he had one-on-one lessons with the rosh yeshiva after he had given his lecture to the rest of the students. The rest of the time, he studied on his own, keeping up with the scheduled quotas. Instead of taking oral examinations like the others, he received written exams.
“My rosh yeshiva was very understanding and willing to accommodate – and so was I,” he said.
After he graduated, Soudakoff returned to LA where it dawned on him that he could put his learning to good use.
“I started to realize that very few Deaf Jews had received the opportunity that I had – to learn about Judaism in a Deaf-friendly environment. I knew that there was interest among Deaf people, but they simply did not know where to go,” he said.
Together with a friend, he put together a video about Rosh Hashanah in ASL, and posted it on Youtube.
“The reaction was fantastic. People wanted to see more,” he said.
So they did. This eventually became what is now Jewish Deaf Multimedia, which in addition to the videos, blogs and resources, offers online courses, such as an introduction to Israeli Sign Language.
“Our goal is to promote Jewish education in the Deaf community. There is no reason why a Deaf Jew should be left out of the beauty that is our Jewish heritage. Since the mainstream Jewish community does not provide the resources for Deaf people, we have to create it ourselves. And create we have,” he said.
Soudakoff is also excited about the summer camps for Jewish deaf boys he has helped launch.
He started the first one in Moscow last summer, which he ran alongside an existing Jewish camp for hearing boys.
“It was a transformative experience,” said Soudakoff. “I realized that I enjoy working with youth, and that there is much to be done in this area.”
This year they are continuing the Moscow camp and are opening another camp for deaf Jewish boys in America. “It is a great way to expose them to Jewish values within the framework of a fun and interactive program. We are expecting children from all over – California, Maryland, Colorado, and even Israel and Russia,” he said, adding that they are looking for interested partners.
While there are options these days for deaf Jews in America, including several organizations and some year-round congregations and others that meet on high holidays, for most of the year there are few opportunities for Deaf people to get together and pray as a community, according to Soudakoff.
And despite a culture that is overall more aware of disabilities in general, deaf people like Soudakoff still face many obstacles.
“I have been ‘overlooked’ a couple of times for an aliyah. Since I am a Levi, I am always on the lookout for whether the minyan needs a Levi to be called up. There was an occasion when the gabbai called out ‘Levi?’ to the crowd and I raised my hand, only to be ignored. After the services ended, I decided to walk over to the gabbai and show him a rabbinical source that permitted deaf people to be called up for an aliyah. My point is that had he seen the source before the incident happened, he would not have done what he did. He was doing this out of ignorance – he simply did not have any experience or knowledge to draw upon, and he wasn’t sure what to do,” he said.
“As an observant Jew, I have encountered different scenarios where Jewish tradition seemingly clashes with deaf needs. But I have been able to find ways around them. You would be surprised how understanding Jewish law is of deaf people. There are sources for giving aliyahs to deaf people, for including them in a minyan, for obligating them in mitzvos, and so on. We simply have to look in the right places, and educate our leaders on the ‘Deaf experience’,” he continued.
Slights against the deaf, Soudakoff believes, happen out of ignorance – not malice.
“I truly believe that most people have only good intentions, and just a little bit of education would go a long way in bridging the gap between the two worlds,” he said.
And being deaf, he feels, is not a handicap but something that is just a part of who he is.
“I do not think that deaf people have it harder than others. We are brought into this world with a different set of challenges than hearing people, and we must address them as we proceed in life. We have to deal with hearing, language, and communication issues. But the last time I checked, hearing people also deal with a host of issues of their own,” he said.