Young deaf Jews find need for connection

WASHINGTON — Casey Pryzgoda, 20, traveled recently from San Antonio, Texas, to join young deaf Jews at a national convention in Silver Spring, Md. The event marked one of the few times she felt connected to Jewish prayer and synagogue ritual.

"Here, I feel happy," she said. "My goal, my dream, has always been to have an interpreter in temple." In her Texas synagogue, "I feel like I don't understand what the rabbi is saying."

Pryzgoda's sentiments were voiced by many of the 20 or so teens gathered in December for the annual winter convention. The event was organized by the Our Way outreach program of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

Hosted by the Silver Spring Jewish Center, the teens participated in Shabbat services and Jewish content discussion groups — all sign-language-interpreted.

Our Way organizes educational and social programs for the Jewish deaf and their family members and has 10 chapters in several regions in the United States and Canada. The Orthodox Union began reaching out to hearing-impaired Jews regardless of affiliation in 1969.

Several Our Way youth participants will be the first Jewish deaf delegates on the March of the Living tour of Eastern Europe this spring.

Taking breaks from playing basketball, several teens shared their views of growing up deaf and Jewish in America.

Batia Mandil is 14 and attends a public school for the deaf in New York City. "I came here for [making] Jewish deaf friends," she says of the Our Way activities. Usually she doesn't care for synagogue: "It's very hard. I don't know what's going on."

Chelsea Lew, a 12-year-old from Long Island, N.Y., is hearing-impaired and finds it "hard to make friends" in the public school where she is mainstreamed in regular seventh-grade classes. An outgoing and vivacious girl who speaks well, Lew, nonetheless, says, "it is hard for the other kids to be with me" because she cannot follow conversations in the crowded school corridors. Lew, who is able to understand synagogue services "because I go so many times," will become a bat mitzvah in April.

"Some Jewish deaf people never get a chance to enjoy the experience of being Jewish. It's kind of sad," said 17-year-old Jason Moore of Los Angeles, national treasurer of Our Way.

Moore, who is observant, attends an Orthodox Jewish day school and participates fully in Jewish life. However, David Kastor of Baltimore, who is also deaf, said most deaf Jewish teens feel "alienated from the mainstream Jewish community" because there are few interpretative services in synagogues and at Jewish community events.

Kastor, an Our Way regional organizer, says Jewish parents who are not very observant may place deafness as the main priority. They may ignore their child's spiritual side and discount the importance of a strong Jewish education.

In the meantime, Christian groups with far more resources than their Jewish counterparts, actively provide outreach to the deaf with welcoming socials and worship services, Kastor said.

While he was in college, Kastor encountered many missionaries to the deaf. "They make videotapes of their events and [portray] everything as so friendly and so beautiful. I saw so many [deaf] Jews be persuaded to become Christians," he said with sadness.

Moreover, Kastor added, "Many deaf teen-agers have a 'who cares?' attitude about Jewish history. We have to educate them, convey the idea that each one is a vital part of our religion's timeline and instill in them the importance of transmitting our tradition to the next generation."