Helping the Deaf to “Hear” in MetroWest

One of the great things about being involved with the federation movement across North America is meeting amazing people who make amazing things happen for the Jewish people. Two years ago, at a national board retreat of Women’s Philanthropy, I was introduced along with the rest of the board to Alexis Kashar and Naomi Brunnlehman.


Alexis, a lawyer and mother of three, told us her personal story of struggling to stay connected to the Jewish community as a deaf person. Naomi is Alexis’ interpreter. Alexis is the president of the Jewish Deaf Resource Center, and Naomi is a co-founder and its executive director. You can learn more at Together, they made us aware of how we need to be more inclusive of all people with different abilities and especially the needs of the deaf. I’m proud to say that as a result of meeting Alexis, the 2010 International Lion of Judah Conference, which I co-chaired with Julie Russin Bercow of Miami, provided real-time captioning for the deaf at all of our plenary sessions. You can find Alexis and Naomi in this video produced for National Women’s Philanthropy that highlights many examples of strong women making a difference through the work of Jewish Federations of North America.


A recent development brought Alexis and Naomi and their work to mind. The Committee on Law and Standards of the Rabbinic Assembly, the body responsible for responsa (rabbinic decisions) in the Conservative movement, unanimously approved a paper on the status of the deaf and sign language. The paper concluded that sign language can be used liturgically and in matters of personal status, including marriage and divorce, and ritual matters such as brit milah and pidyon ha-ben (redemption of the first-born son). The paper’s author, Rabbi Pamela Barmash, specifically thanked Alexis and Naomi, among others, for their assistance. The full paper is available here. I was so proud to see their efforts being recognized and to see an important Jewish body recognize the need for clarifying the rights of the deaf. 


This in turn got me to thinking about what is happening in MetroWest to include the deaf community. It turns out that the answer is a lot, some of it very recent. And this is the other side of the coin in terms of participation in Jewish life nationally and locally. While there is always more to learn from people outside our community, we can also always find MetroWest on the cutting edge of making change happen. Just last weekend, Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David in West Orange held its 12th Annual Our Way Families and Singles Shabbaton. Our Way for the Jewish Deaf and Hard of Hearing is a division of the National Jewish Council for Disabilities (NJCD), an agency that provides social, educational, and recreational programs for Jewish youth and young adults who are deaf and hard of hearing. For the last dozen years, AABJ&D has been part of Our Way’s effort to increase awareness and inclusion of the deaf. 


That’s just one example of what is happening in our local congregations. In speaking with UJC’s Rebecca Wanatick, MetroWest’s community inclusion coordinator, I learned about all of the efforts by local synagogues to include the deaf. You can too, by going to the “For Synagogues” section of the MetroWest ABLE website.



For those of you who don’t know, MetroWest ABLE stands for Access, Belonging and Life Enrichment for People and Families with Special Needs. MetroWest ABLE is funded by the Annual UJA Campaign and grants from the Linda Bunis Haller Foundation and the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey. On the “For Synagogues” section noted above, there is a listing of the synagogues that offer services for people with different abilities and specific reference to the needs of the deaf. Several synagogues offer American Sign Language interpretation, and others are offering CART (Computer Access in Real Time), a live captioning system for the deaf and hard of hearing. The MetroWest ABLE website is a wealth of information for individuals, families, synagogues, and other institutions who seek inclusion of all of the members of our vibrant Jewish community.


Here’s the best part — MetroWest ABLE has grants available to synagogues that would like to offer American Sign Language interpretation or CART. If your congregation would like to know more about these grants or any of the other grant programs offered by MetroWest ABLE, or if you or a family member would like more information about services for people with different abilities, please contact Rebecca at (973) 929-3129 or


I’m going to quote from the conclusion of Rabbi Barmash’s paper, as she aptly returns to the teachings of the Torah: “The Torah states that ‘Do not put a stumbling block before the blind.’ (Lev 9:14) It is the responsibility of our communities, synagogues, schools and camps to draw on the essence of this mitzvah in making our communities welcoming and inclusive of the deaf.” I am proud to be a part of a national community and a local community that is making this a priority!


Many thanks to Becca Wanatick, Batya Jacob, Randee Rubenstein, and Beth Mann for raising my awareness, providing information and most of all, for the work you do!  (And for helping me get this post done and out to our fantastic Marketing staff!)


Add Comment