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Judaism Without Words

A look into how the deaf community connects to Judaism.

Synagogues across the world pray using the same ancient Hebrew words, but each imparts their own take on these traditions through the use of unique music. These regional “twists” on Judaism create a spiritual aspect of the religion that resonates with the local community. 

But for the deaf community, the centuries-old Hebrew words are their only connection to the religion as they are unable to hear the beautiful music that draws many people into the religion. However, their spiritual connections are formed through the use of sign language in services, for the translation of Hebrew into American sign language (ASL) creates symbolic prayers. This is due to the fact that many English words share the same hand motions. 

 For instance, take the Shema. The final word of this prayer is יחד, which means together. The ASL translation is one’s fist pushed together over their chest, which is the same motion used to signify love. Because of the language overlap of motions to indicate words, there is a double meaning behind signs. Thus, Hebrew prayers translated into ASL can have multiple, meaningful definitions. This creates a unique connection to Judaism for the deaf community because they are able to look at ancient prayers in a new light. It is a true demonstration that even in silence, Jewish prayers are able to spur spiritual connections.  

The largest deaf community in the United States is found in the mid-Atlantic region, tucked away in Rochester, N.Y. This city contains many deaf-friendly communities that cater to the needs of their Jewish members. For instance, the Rochester Institute of Technology, which boasts a school dedicated to the unique learning styles of deaf individuals, contains a Jewish chapter within their Center for Cultural Enrichment for the deaf. These dedicated individuals work to increase participation of deaf Jews in the religion and make services and celebrations more accessible to them. With more programs like these, the spirituality found in the words of Judaism can be shared with the deaf community.

Carly Brail is a sophomore at the High School of American Studies in New York. She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.

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