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Op-Ed: Bid to include deaf Jews must be heard

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NEW YORK (JTA) — "Hear O Israel, The Lord Is our God. The Lord Is One," it proclaims in Deuteronomy 6:4.

When considered objectively, that unifying, eternal clarion call of the Jewish People can appear to be exclusionary among the Jewish people it stands to unite.

Here we the Jewish Nation stand, as groups and as individuals, from Sinai down to every heroic last act a Jew performs, declaring the singularity of God. Yet in so doing we invoke only those who are capable of hearing. But what of our deaf Jewish brothers and sisters?

The question has been ignored so long that deaf Jews seem to have made their choice. Between Jewish culture — let alone religion — and deaf culture, deaf Jews have overwhelmingly chosen deaf culture. Deaf culture provides an inclusive haven for people with a distinct commonality, perhaps more so than does Judaism.

Deaf Jews — deaf people — tend to seek out and socialize with deaf people. Deaf culture is pervasive and positive. In fact, in an age when deafness often can be adjusted, if not reversed, through advances in cochlear implant technology, some in the deaf community are opting not to insert cochlear implants, or not to get them for their children, in order to retain their deaf identity.

Recently The Wall Street Journal had an article about pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, PGD, the scientific process being explored to allow prospective parents to pre-select their child’s genetic traits. The article found that 3 percent of PGD clinics were willing, at the parents’ request, to use PGD to select an embryo likely to have the same disease or disability, such as deafness, that affects the parents.

Groups who support this approach argue that a deaf child born to a deaf couple is better suited to participating in the parents’ shared culture.

According to the most recent World Health Organization estimate, from 1998, there are 120 million people worldwide with disabling hearing impairment. Proportionately, that translates to nearly 138 million people — about 2.05 percent of the world population.

Regarding the United States, the National Health Interview Survey, based on 2005 statistics, tells us that approximately 600,000 people (0.22 percent of the population, or 2.2 per 1,000) are "deaf"; about 6 million people (2.2 percent) report having "a lot of trouble" hearing; and more than 28 million people (10 percent) report having "a little trouble" hearing.

Curiously, the U.S. hard-of-hearing population parallels the U.S. Jewish population. And while there are no resources to correlate deaf statistics to the Jewish population, there is no reason to assume the percentage of deaf Jews is other than that of the general population.

So it can be estimated that 0.22 percent of U.S. Jews, more than 14,000 people, are deaf; 2.2 percent of U.S. Jews, nearly 142,000 people, have a lot of trouble hearing; and 2.05 percent of Jews worldwide, some 271,256 people, have disabling hearing impairment.

Are more than 270,000 Jews absolved of glorifying God’s singularity and absolved from following His word, and in turn negated as a part of the Jewish people?

Some people who have glanced at the Talmud might mistakenly think so. After all, the Talmud does have laws that specifically exclude the deaf, alongside the mentally incompetent and children, from responsibility for performance of mitzvot (precepts).

But the Mishnah and Talmud clarify that the deaf person whom the Talmud excludes from self responsibility is also one who does not speak. Thus many authorities conclude that it is only people so deaf that they cannot utter a comprehensible sound who fit the category. And even among the exceedingly rare class of deaf who fit this definition, some commentaries understand that the Talmud is referring to deaf people who have no comprehension, so any deaf person who has learned to communicate even through sign language wouldn’t be part of the exclusion.

Yet the uniting call, "Sh’ma" — "hear," is pronounced to the hearing, excluding the deaf. Theologically the question is easily answered. The Talmud extrapolates from "Hear O Israel" that it means the declaration of God’s exclusivity can be made in any language one "hears," implying that in context "hear" means "understand." More esoterically, it can be answered that the call of God’s uniqueness can be heard even by the deaf, much like the entire nation "saw" the thunder at Sinai.

So if the deaf are included among the Nation of Israel, included in the "Hear O Israel," yet consider themselves part only of the nation of the deaf, what are we as Jews to do?

Perhaps one of the least well-known departments in the Orthodox Union is our National Jewish Deaf Singles Registry (JDSR). This department coordinates singles events and circulates a newsletter that includes personal ads for deaf Jewish singles. The ads include a listing of the level of the singles’ religious Jewish affiliation, from unaffiliated to Orthodox.

JDSR was founded in light of the high intermarriage rate in the Jewish deaf community. The Jewish deaf had long been bereft of Jewish education, so the OU, through its Our Way program, organized to provide Jewish education and socialization to deaf Jews, introduced singles programming to stem the tide of deaf Jewish intermarriage.

This small group of some 100 participants has had statistically remarkable results. In fact, in the last year-and-a-half, three engagements from among JDSR participants — Jews who likely would have otherwise intermarried — have occurred.

After years of exclusion, it is not so clear that deaf Jews want to be included among the Nation of Israel, at least not without our express invitation. The goal of JDSR is to provide that invitation. Our Way and JDSR aim to educate deaf Jews who have little other opportunity to learn about Judaism and their own Jewishness. JDSR is geared toward helping deaf Jews cherish their Jewish identity and retain it.

"Hear O Israel," all Israel, in any language and with any senses. In today’s world, we need all the unity we can get.

(Rabbi Mayer Waxman is the associate director of the Orthodox Union’s Yachad/The National Jewish Council for Disabilities. NJCD’s Our Way produces Judaic educational materials for the deaf, including highlights of the seder in sign language.)
 

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