Beliefnet
Tchia Kastor knows what it is like to observe a silent Hanukkah. This year, though, the 20-year-old deaf Baltimore resident is helping bring some of the joy of the Festival of Lights to Jews who have similar problems. She's produced a transliterated-Hebrew sign-language chart containing the Hanukkah candle blessings and describing holiday rituals and customs.

"The chart is important because deaf people want to enjoy the holiday through the use of sign language for Hanukkah blessings," Kastor said via e-mail. "They feel good and closer to Hashem [a Hebrew term for God]."

The chart, sponsored by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (Orthodox Union), is one example of holiday-time outreach to Jews with special physical needs. Around the country, Jewish school and synagogue groups will light Hanukkah candles and distribute holiday gifts to the infirm, frail, and impaired in hospitals and senior citizen centers and homes.

On each night of Hanukkah, Jews light candles in a special candelabra called a "Hanukkiah," or menorah. Starting with one candle, a new one is added each night, until eight, plus a "shammash," the candle used to light the others, are lit on the holiday's final evening.

Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple following the military victory of the Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, over their Syrian-Greek occupiers in about 165 B.C.E. American Jews celebrate the holiday with social gatherings and synagogue programs geared toward children and families--making Kastor's chart an important tool for inclusion.

However, despite the chart and the many other attempts to involve larger numbers of hearing-impaired and disabled Jews, rabbis and others involved in this work say not nearly enough is being done on behalf of Jews with special needs.

"There's large-scale neglect," said Rabbi Evan Jaffe of the Flemington, N.J., Jewish Community Center, who is also a chaplain at a nearby psychiatric hospital with severely disabled patients. By and large, it's an ignored community."

Jaffe never planned to focus his attention or efforts on the developmentally disabled. But, several years ago, he was asked to serve as chaplain at the psychiatric center 10 miles from his synagogue.

Although most of the patients' disabilities kept them from speaking, Jaffe said he began to see opportunities for them to participate in the weekly services he conducted for them through clapping, uttering syllables, or opening the Ark when the Torah scrolls were removed.

Some of the patients then began attending High Holy Days services at Jaffe's synagogue, and soon he was training some for their bar or bat mitzvah ceremonies, several of which have taken place at the Flemington Jewish Community Center, a Conservative synagogue.

After intensive training, many were able to recite the blessings over the Torah themselves, while others communicated in their own ways: One elderly man recited garbled syllables, while an autistic young man used flash cards to "recite" the blessings for his bar mitzvah.

Today, some patients from the hospital attend weekly services at Jaffe's synagogue, and the local Jewish community will hold a Hanukkah party at the hospital. "They've really become part of the community," Jaffe said of the hospital patients.

That's also the case at the Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology's campus Jewish organization, Hillel, which sponsors the Wolk Center for Jewish Cultural Enrichment of the Deaf. One of Rochester's units is the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, where about a quarter of the roughly 100 students are Jewish.

The Wolk center runs holiday programs for deaf and hearing-impaired students, including dinner in the Sukkah -- the temporary hutlike structure -- during the fall holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. Interpreters sign during weekly Sabbath services, and the leader of High Holy Days services is fluent in American Sign Language.

Many of the campus' Jewish hearing-impaired students have little or no Jewish education or experience, because most went to specialized boarding schools where they were often the only Jews, said Rochester's lay Jewish chaplain, Kip Lombardo.

While many of the Wolk center's programs focus on Jewish rituals and services, Hanukkah will be a time to have fun: at the Sunday Latke-palooza, students will feast on latkes, traditional potato pancakes, and be entertained by a deaf Jewish storyteller.

The Orthodox Union also will sponsor Hanukkah parties for deaf and developmentally disabled Jews around the county. The OU, through its Our Way program for the deaf and Yachad program for the developmentally disabled, will sponsor sign-language Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremonies, hold parties bringing together Jewish day-school children and Yachad members, and send information to schools explaining Hanukkah in terms understandable to children with special needs.

During the rest of the year, the two groups hold similar events. On Purim--the Jewish Festival of Lots celebrating the Persian Jews' victory over their royal court nemesis Haman in the fifth century B.C.E.--Our Way holds signed readings of the Book of Esther, which recounts the event. Yachad holds costume parties, a Purim custom.

Last year, Our Way produced a sign-language chart for the Sabbath candle-lighting blessings, also created by Kastor.

It is important for organizations like these to focus their attention on the holidays, said Jeff Lichtman, director of the Orthodox Union's National Jewish Council for the Disabled, which runs Yachad--"together" in Hebrew--and Our Way.

"In our lives, we have these Norman Rockwell images, the perfect family," Lichtman said. "I have three children. My house is not like that. I don't think too many people are like that."

To obtain copies of the Hanukkah sign-language chart, write to Our Way, 11 Broadway, N.Y., N.Y. 10004, telephone (relay equipped) 212-613-8234, or send an e-mail to extra@ou.org.

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