Behind the Scenes at the Jewish Deafblind Shabbaton

shabbos table

Before Baltimorean Sara Leah Kovacs read about the first Jewish Deafblind Shabbaton, which was held in 2010, she assumed you had to be totally deaf and totally blind, like Helen Keller, to participate. When she found out that it was open to people with varying degrees of dual hearing and vision loss, she eagerly signed up for the 2011 and 2013 Shabbatons. At those events, she led tefila (prayer) classes, and is now also the Deafblind delegate to the planning committee for this year’s Shabbaton, along with Deaf delegates David and Sheryl Michalowski.

Mrs. Kovacs will make the 17-mile trip to the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center, in Reisterstown, where the Shabbaton will be held this year, from June 12 to 14. Others come from farther away. Mordy Weis will travel 5,817 miles to attend the Shabbaton for a third time. “I gain from the Shabbaton by meeting different people with different backgrounds and different vision issues,” says Mr. Weis, who works for a fabric design company in Holon, Israel. “My favorite part is the ‘panel,’ which debates various issues. At the last Shabbaton, I was asked to help interpret in shul by tactile signing for a Deafblind male, because his female support service provider (SSP) could not accompany him in the men’s section.”

Many volunteer SSPs attend the Shabbaton, to provide sign or oral interpretation services as needed and to act as guides, so that those with limited or no hearing and limited or no vision can participate in the Shabbaton, follow divrei Torah, and socialize with other Jewish Deafblind people.

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The concept of providing a fully accessible Shabbat experience for Jews of all backgrounds living with dual hearing and vision loss is the brainchild of Rabbi Lederfiend, director of the Orthodox Union’s (OU) “Our Way” program. In 2009, he called Towson University Professor Sheryl Cooper, an American Sign Language interpreter who works with Deaf and Deafblind people in the Baltimore community, asking for her help in setting up a Shabbaton for Deafblind people.

“He wanted to brainstorm ideas, and I had plenty,” recalls Professor Cooper. “First of all, Baltimore was the ideal location for this event, because the Pearlstone is a comprehensive facility that provides kosher food as well as affordable meeting and sleeping accommodations. It has the added attractions of the farm with its animals and herbs, which are great for sensory activities with this population. I was eager to take on a leadership role in the planning, and I immediately contacted Yael Zelinger – the coordinator of the Jewish Advocates for Deaf Education (JADE) program of the Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education (CJE) – to combine resources.”

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What does it take to plan a Shabbaton for Deafblind people, and what logistical challenges does such a feat present? According to Professor Cooper, Pearlstone is surprisingly well-equipped to accommodate the Deafblind population. Everything can be accessed on one level, making it easy for users of wheelchairs and canes, and lighting in most areas is very good, although the large dining rooms can create too much glare at some times of the day.

“Returning to the same facility each time is also helpful for our participants, since they’ve learned their way around,” adds Professor Cooper, “and having kosher food prepared onsite is great. Access to a kosher kitchen to make challah and cookies, etc., is a real plus, as well. Deafblind participants have enjoyed the farm aspects of the Pearlstone, as we’ve gone on hikes, interacted with the animals, and smelled the growing herbs and spices.

“Because we try to make the Shabbaton as affordable as possible, we use sleeping rooms that accommodate several people,” continues Professor Cooper. “The use of bunk beds is not always popular with Deafblind people, as they run the risk of bumping their heads. Community bathrooms also have their cons; some of our participants have locked themselves out of their bedrooms when using the bathroom in the middle of the night, and have been unable to awaken their Deafblind roommates to let them back in. This is mitigated by having a hearing staff member keep the master key overnight.”

Mrs. Zelingers says, “To help a Deafblind person who is locked out in the middle of the night, we post English and Braille signs at each bedroom door, stating the room number, plus a master list of who is sleeping where‎ in English and Braille, so anyone can find a friend, SSP, or staff person. Meals are planned to be blind-friendly. Sauces and dressings are on the side, and no foods that can squirm off the plate, like peas, are served.”

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Other than receiving funding from the Orthodox Union, the Shabbaton is all Baltimore driven. Local funding comes from the CJE, private foundations, private companies, and organizations. Local professionals and volunteers bring in Deafblind people from all over the country and Eretz Yisrael. Jews and Jewish organizations of all stripes – from Orthodox to Reconstructionist to the unaffiliated – collaborate to make this Shabbaton happen.

“For me, the Shabbatons are meaningful on many levels: practical, emotional, and spiritual,” says Mrs. Kovacs. “I enjoy socializing with other Jewish Deafblind people and sharing Shabbos with them. This is no small thing, since the majority of the wonderful service providers for Deafblind people are either totally secular or religious Christians. While they are usually wonderful people who try to be ‘inclusive’ and ‘non-denominational,’ they are strongly educated in their own beliefs and lifestyle.”

Mrs. Kovacs explains that following most of the programming at standard Shabbatons is difficult. “Even a Shabbaton geared towards Deaf people can be challenging to me, because I need to be very close to see an interpreter and have a very small visual field.

 “I also enjoy the chance to reach out to other Jewish Deafblind people and share the beauty of Shabbos. Unless a person had normal hearing and vision as a child, almost no Deafblind person, even those who were ‘mainstreamed,’ has received the same level of Jewish education as their peers with normal vision and hearing. This is because most of the service providers for their special needs do not have a Jewish education themselves or are not even Jewish. We need kiruv for Deafblind people, even for those born and raised frum. My great joy in attending is simply seeing all these Jewish Deafblind people being openly Jewish in a Jewish setting,” Mrs. Kovacs concludes.

According to Professor Cooper, “As an active member of many Jewish organizations, I was always frustrated that they did not make more of an effort to engage Deaf and Deafblind people. In many places, there are no interpreters in Hebrew schools, Sunday schools, religious services, etc. I know many Deaf and Deafblind people who left Judaism because they did not feel a part of the community, and I have seen more and more Deaf and Deafblind Jews attending social events through churches over the years.”

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True to its mission statement, the Deafblind Shabbaton is empowering for its Deafblind participants. “This year, the responsibility of selecting workshop topics and presenters was given to the Deafblind participants themselves. Each workshop will be led by a Deafblind participant,” notes Mrs. Zelinger. “These participant leaders will choose a topic related to our theme, ‘Chicken Soup for the Jewish Deafblind Soul,’ that is, connecting to G-d. They will choose a speaker who is either on the staff or someone from the outside who is willing to come in gratis. The Deafblind leaders will introduce the speaker and the topic.

“This year, for the first time, we will have a proper Deafblind-friendly Shacharis, led by a Deaf rabbi and a Deafblind chazzan,” Mrs. Zelinger explains. “Each section of the tefila will be explained briefly by the rabbi. For example, during Birchos Hashachar, the chazan will recite each bracha in Hebrew or ASL. Each participant will have the brachos in large print, Hebrew, English, or Braille, as needed. They will follow along and answer ‘amen’ after each bracha.”

The Shabbaton will also benefit from the participation of two local Deaf rabbis and several Deaf volunteers. And CJE Executive Vice President Rabbi Larry Ziffer will come to offer his expertise, as needed.

“For many of the Deafblind participants, it’s the first time in their lives that they have felt a part of the Jewish community,” notes Professor Cooper. “One woman was practically in tears as she lit Shabbat candles, saying it was the first time she had ever lit candles as an adult; the last time she lit candles was as a child, with her mother, over 40 years ago. Men will have the experience of participating in religious services that move at a slower pace, allowing for explanations of the meaning and significance of the prayers. They will also have the opportunity to wrap tefilin, which most of them have never done before. Our participants head home at the end of the weekend with many souvenirs – challah they braided and baked, art projects they created with Jewish artifacts, Braille and large print copies of prayers and Jewish literature – which keep the experience alive in their everyday life.

“It takes a ‘village’ to bring this event together, and I enjoy being part of a fantastic team of committed professionals and volunteers,” concludes Professor Cooper. “Last year, to serve 18 Deafblind participants, we were a force of 75 people at the Shabbaton! This included participants, SSPs, workshop presenters, committee members, some spouses, and more. After feeling frustrated for so many years that there was nothing for the Jewish Deafblind community, I am proud to be a part of this exciting initiative that I hope will continue to grow.”

As Mrs. Zelinger writes on her JCE blog, “There are many clubs for people who are Deafblind, and many churches are Deafblind accessible, but for only one weekend a year, Jewish people who are both deaf and blind have an opportunity to spend Shabbat together, learning about their Jewish history, heritage, and culture.”


For further information about the Jewish Deafblind Shabbaton, contact Yael Zelinger,

410-735-5023 or Early bird registration, offering substantial savings, ends March 16th. Registration deadline is April 16, 2015.

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