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For deaf campers, a sign of acceptance
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For deaf campers, a sign of acceptance

A Gan Israel program helps under-served kids access their Judaism

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Crossing a bridge at Camp Gan Israel in the Poconos are members of the deaf program — with program director Miriam Kramer, right — Noy Balilty, left, and May Avrahami. 
Crossing a bridge at Camp Gan Israel in the Poconos are members of the deaf program — with program director Miriam Kramer, right — Noy Balilty, left, and May Avrahami. 

It’s quiet in a classroom at Camp Gan Israel, where Bunk 6 is learning about Jewish wedding customs from Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff. Tonight’s activity will be a mock wedding, and he wants to make sure they will be ready.

There’s an occasional giggle, and some foot stamping and hand waving to get people’s attention, and plenty of signing. But no one is talking or shouting or even whispering. 

Soudakoff is profoundly deaf, and so are the eight girls, ages nine-16, seated on the bench in front of him. They watch him carefully, and when one has a question, she comes to the front so everyone can watch her ask and see Soudakoff answer in American Sign Language. When he asks the group a question, whoever answers comes to the front so everyone can see the answer. 

When a camper makes a cogent point, Soudakoff raises his hands to ear level and shakes them to say, “Great job.” His smile takes up his entire face.

For many of the girls, the deaf program at Gan Israel, located in Dingman’s Ferry in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, marks their first formal exposure to Judaism and Jewish education, often inaccessible to Jews who are deaf. Coming mostly from unaffiliated homes, “they are so thirsty” for Jewish knowledge, said camp director Gershon Sandler.

Rose Crisman, 13, from Fremont, Calif., spoke to a visitor on her way from the class to a boating activity. She’s never been to a Jewish camp before, but here: “My whole bunk is Jewish!” she signed through an interpreter. “Everything we do at camp is related to Judaism. And the food is kosher. And we celebrate Shabbat here!” 

She added that she plans to share what she has learned with her mother so they can keep Shabbat and kashrut together. 

There are no statistics on how many people in the United States are deaf and Jewish. But deafness is assumed to occur at the same rate among Jews as the general population (about .22 percent of the population, according to the 2005 national Health Interview Survey). So using numbers of Jewish adults (about five million) and children (about one million) from the 2013 Pew Research Center’s study of American Jews, there are about 2,200 children who are Jewish and deaf and 11,000 adults. 

Although there are organizations designed to advocate for deaf Jews in the United States and a handful of deaf rabbis — including Rabbi Darby Leigh, who was assistant rabbi at Montclair’s Bnai Keshet from 2008 to 2013 — learning about Judaism and participating in the Jewish world remains a challenge, according to Soudakoff. 

“Most Jewish deaf children have very little access to information,” he signed, also using an interpreter. “They won’t know what’s going on in Jewish venues. They’re not in sync with other Jewish kids their age. They don’t go to a Jewish day school or a Sunday school.”

Deaf people are more comfortable in a culturally deaf environment, according to Soudakoff. But Jewish events generally take place in “hearing spaces.”

Organizations like the Jewish Deaf Resource Center try to bridge the gap, providing funds for interpreters at Jewish events and creating awareness among the hearing. But such efforts often fail to reach Jews in the deaf world.

Soudakoff founded Jewish Deaf Multimedia in 2010 in an effort to reach deaf Jews where they are. 

If that sounds like a Chabad model, there’s a good reason — although the organization is independent, the Los Angeles-born Soudakoff himself affiliates with Chabad-Lubavitch, the hasidic outreach movement known for dispatching emissaries to far-flung and often underserved Jewish communities. Gan Israel is affiliated with Chabad. 

On the JDMM website, Soudakoff offers videos on basic Jewish topics, a videotaped commentary on the weekly Torah portion in sign language, and an occasional on-line class in Israeli Sign Language.

After working with an interpreter and a handful of Jewish deaf children at a summer camp in Moscow two years ago, “I started to realize we needed that kind of camp in America,” Soudakoff told NJJN in a phone conversation with the help of a third-party interpreter. 

Last summer, he created a program for deaf Jewish boys at Camp L’man Achai in upstate New York. Attendance increased from 11 last summer to 20 this summer. This summer, he launched the three-week program for girls at Gan Israel. 

“We are giving them a foundation of Jewish-Deaf knowledge and identity,” Soudakoff wrote in an e-mail. “By the time the campers go home, we know they will be so proud and happy to be Jewish.”

He hired a team of women led by director Miriam Kramer to run the girls’ program, along with interpreters to interact with the rest of the camp. The deaf program’s administrators work with the “mainstream” camp in coordinating activities, meals, and joint programs to integrate the deaf and hearing campers.

Chani Spiero, Gan Israel’s Jewish learning director, said Bunk 6 has had an unexpected impact on her. 

“It’s really opened my eyes,” said Spiero, who created an elective for the Bunk 6 kids to teach the other campers ASL. “I’ve never had any interaction with the deaf world. It’s really amazing to see a whole other world.”

But integrating the campers has been uneven. Some kids are eager to interact with their deaf peers, while others are less interested. This becomes obvious as the Bunk 6ers enters the pool area for an activity and do not join with the other youngsters. “Some kids are really motivated to learn sign language and communicate with us,” Sierra Herzig-Wilcox, 10, of Maryland, explained in ASL. “But others just say hi and that’s it. They just aren’t motivated.”

Still, she’s pleased with camp. “I wanted to learn more about Judaism. I don’t know so much. Also, I want to hang out with Jewish friends. I am learning about Torah, and what to do and not to do on Shabbat.” She added, “I hope I will remember some of what I learned. It’s my religion! And when I have children I will teach them what I have learned.” 

Back in the classroom, the girls are starting to flag. One is even covering her eyes. Soudakoff explains that there’s no half paying attention when you’re deaf. “If you’re not watching the person signing, you’re not getting anything,” he said. Soudakoff answers a few more of their questions, before sending them off to go boating. It is camp, after all. 

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