Bringing Jews Back Home, Making Room for Diversity
I recently had the pleasure of touring the NY School for the Deaf in White Plains, NY with Alexis Kashar, the president of its board. Alexis is an attorney specializing in special education and disability rights and has dedicated herself to activism and pro bono work on behalf of the deaf.
For a few hours, I had a glimpse into the world of people who are deaf. Alexis is Deaf, she uses sign language and also speaks so I found it relatively easy to communicate with her. I had a few moments at the school where a child was attempting to communicate with me and I had no idea what they were saying. It felt a bit uneasy. If there were words that I didn’t understand I asked Alexis to repeat them and I found it quite helpful when she signed (although I do not speak American Sign Language).
Many of the students at the NY School for the Deaf have moved out of the public school system and into the school because they were not being successfully educated there. Some students found it difficult to learn and to make friends because they were not able to have meaningful dialogue with teachers and students from the hearing world.
For Jewish children who are Deaf the experience is similar but also comes with a few additional layers. When a Jewish child leaves the education system, they find that the Deaf school has very few other Jewish students. Their access to Jewish schools, synagogues and Jewish programming is very limited. If the family is very involved in the Jewish community and if they have access to interpreters, then perhaps their child will be a part of that community. For the majority of Jews who are Deaf, that is not the case. Alexis feels that as a community we need to bring Jews back home. If we can ensure that Jews who are deaf will have access to Jewish life through accommodations such as sign language interpreters in synagogues, federation events, camp programs then not only will be working to bring them back home but their families will come with them. It is what Alexis calls the Ripple Effect.
When I asked Alexis to share her thoughts on how we could best serve children who are deaf at camp her answer was, “It is not cut and dry.” Alexis grew up attending public school and summer camp in the hearing world. She understands the benefits of that upbringing for a person who is deaf but Alexis feels that a child can also benefit from being in a world where they relate to other people who are deaf. They will be among role models who understand their deaf background and communicate in their native language.
Children who are deaf have joined Jewish camps in the past, but what Alexis is suggesting is that we first focus on what would best meet the needs of the children who are deaf and then go from there. One idea would be to have children who are deaf live in cabins with other campers who are deaf. These cabins could be located on the grounds of any Jewish camp so that the children would still have access to the exact same activities and experiences available at camp. They would be a part of the larger community and attend the same programming. They could be fully included throughout the day. Alexis further suggested that there could be programs tailor made for the campers who are deaf that the hearing campers would be invited to participate in. A play performance would be a good example. There might even be campers who are hearing involved as actors in the play.
As we have noted in other contexts, the term we are seeking is full inclusion. For a deaf camper, this doesn’t mean being present but unable to communicate, and it must not mean being merely on the same campus as the fuller camping program. It must be an atmosphere that provides the tools and peers for communication, challenge and exploration like any other camper.
For example, at Camp L’man Achai, one of the camps of the FJC network, there is a one program for boys who are deaf. The program was a great success in 2014. The boys had a Jewish experience in a totally supportive environment that was specially designed with their needs in mind. They also had full access to the hearing community at camp. That was not an issue.
During the school year there are many reasons why a student who is deaf might prefer environments that are less inclusive, but this must not happen at the sacrifice of Jewish involvement. The unique strengths of Jewish summer camping, with its informal educational tools, is a perfect place to break down those barriers and bring Jewish campers who are deaf into the fold. Visiting with Alexis helped me to understand how that may be made possible, and how important, that is.
When I left the school, I felt invigorated and I also felt that I had missed out. I would love to be able to say that I grew up in a world where I had children of all disabilities in my classrooms or in my summer programs and that I had a good friend who also happened to be deaf. There is no doubt that having close ties and experiencing community with a diverse group of people broadens our horizons in so many ways. Our Jewish community is quite diverse though it may not seem so because we have not yet achieved our goal of making it as open an as welcoming as it needs to be so that all Jews will feel that they are always able to come back home.