By Alexis Kashar, activist attorney for the deaf and hard of hearing community, public policy chair for the National Association for the Deaf, president of the Jewish Deaf Resource Center (JDRC), and 2011 JWI Woman to Watch.
This year, for the first time in my family’s history, my sister led the Seder for all 11 of us: 5 children and 6 adults.
This may not seem remarkable to you, and you might ask, “so?” So, at this Seder, we had both hearing and deaf people around the table, and it was delivered bilingually in both American Sign Language and English. Even more remarkable, we were all participating as new members of the wider Jewish community, despite being Jews since birth for our family’s entire history.
Why did this happen? Because three generations of family members could not gain access to the wider Jewish community; three generations of our family include Jews who are or were deaf. When someone in a family is denied access to the community, the entire family cannot be fully integrated. For instance, in my personal situation, I would not be fulfilling my duties as a mother if I turned my own children over to the Jewish community without full access of my own.
The doors to the Jewish community are being pried open. We are now returning home. The stumbling blocks are being hammered away by a very special group of Jewish people: the Jewish Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Resource Center (JDRC) and all its partners in the wider Jewish community. With all that JDRC is doing, synagogues, community centers, and organizations that serve the Jewish community are beginning to realize that we must become a more inclusive community.
One of JDRC’s efforts to promote a more inclusive Jewish community is the establishment of a Deaf and Hard of Hearing Awareness Shabbat which will take places this year on May 5th. The Torah portion read on this very Shabbat commands that we do just that. On May 5th, we read in Parshat Kedoshim, which commands, “do not insult the deaf…” This Torah portion commands that we be a holy people and one of the ways is how we treat one another. On this day, we ask all rabbis across denominations to devote their sermons to this specific commandment about the deaf. What better way to become a more inclusive community than to learn about one another on Shabbat? We hope you and your congregation will join us on May 5th. We know as women that change is not what is heard but what begins in the heart.