By Rabbi Pete TOBIAS, the Liberal Synagogue, Elstree.
A couple of years ago, my good friend Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner asked me if I would lead a seder at the Jewish Deaf Association.
Laura has a family connection with this organisation which, according to its website, is ‘an independent, national charity offering professional support services, information and a range of social, cultural and educational programmes to people with all levels of hearing loss, people experiencing tinnitus, their friends, families and colleagues’.
I had no idea what to expect, but Rabbi Laura promised me it would be a moving and unforget- table experience. She was right. More than 40 deaf and deafblind people, some with additional disabilities, shared a seder which may have lacked the usual communal reading and singing that is a feature of such events, but made up for it in sheer exuberance, dedication and appreciation.
The exuberance came from the participants, who smiled and waved their hands in silent applause at all those who read or signed the basic blessings and readings in English and Hebrew. The dedica- tion was apparent in the work of the JDA staff: interpreting for their guests with enthusiasm and love. And I appreciated every moment – so much so that I’ve been back to the JDA on many occa- sions and led their 2013 seder as well.
It was explained to me that the participants in these sederim and many other events at the JDA are mostly senior citizens. As children with a disability, they found themselves institutionalised,
isolated from their families and the outside world. As a consequence, their life experience and education was limited, which is why the read- ings at the seder were short and simple. The sense of joy they had managed to find in the JDA, and each others’ company, was tangible, and shows the benefit of community, even though this group of people had largely been marginalised by their community and society growing up.
My experiences and encounters at the JDA inspired me to add a fourth book to the series of children’s books I have written about the Jewish festivals. The theme of these books is inclusivity, and the approaching festival of Shavuot led me to consider how a girl aged nine, who could not hear, might experience the voice of God that, according to tradition, all Jews are supposed to have heard at Mount Sinai.
I learned that people who are hearing- impaired use vibrations to be able to perceive sound. According to the book of Exodus, the revelation at Sinai was accompanied by an earthquake, so there would have been plenty of opportunity for vibrations to be experienced.
I showed the first draft of the book to Sue Cipin, JDA’s executive director, who embodies the dedication of all the staff there. She introduced metoawholenewworldofJDAandputmein touch with the Freeman family, a young deaf fam- ily with a nine-year-old daughter, Chantelle, who gave their opinion of the story and some input.
The family were delightful and I marvelled at the difference between their lives and those with whom I had celebrated the seder and other events at the JDA. Here was a little girl whose dis- ability had not caused her to be marginalised and excluded from mainstream society.
On the contrary, advances in technology had ensured she was able to access sound with the use of a sophisticated device called a cochlear implant. More importantly, real efforts have clear- ly been made to integrate Chantelle and her deaf peers into the world of her hearing contempo- raries: she attends a Jewish day school, is a mem- ber of a synagogue, and is fully involved in the activities of the community. She speaks, she hears and she listens: the contrast between this young girl and the elderly participants in the activities of the JDA could not be more stark.
This is a testament to a world that has learned in recent decades to change its attitude to disabil- ity, seeking to integrate rather than isolate those who do not fit society’s perception of ‘normal’.
It is a testament to organisations like the JDA, which works tirelessly to increase awareness and bring about change in the Jewish community.
And it is a reminder to us all that every human being should be valued and nurtured, whatever abilities they may or may not possess.
• Rabbi Tobias’ book, The Voice of the Shaking Mountain, is available from www.liberaljudaism.org