Deaf World: essay reflection

This is the fourth in a series of reflections on essays from the book Deaf World, edited by Lois Bragg. All essays in this text are by d/Deaf authors, meaning it is both a primary resource, and thanks to the scope of essays, a historical reader.

“What a Deaf Jewish Leader Expects of a Rabbi,” which was originally a speech delivered by the then president of the National Association of the Deaf, was written by Frederick C. Schreiber, in 1999. Schreiber argues that deaf (I’m using “d” because Schreiber does) Jewish people are left behind because their rabbis have no training in all aspects of being deaf. Deaf Jews are without comfort, guidance, and congregation in both secular and religious matters. Furthermore, because they are not included at Temple, their children are negatively affected, and if the children have no religious instruction, their children will not receive proper training in Judaism, effectively stopping a whole family from engaging with their religion. 

Although I did not learn anything new from Schrieber’s speech, I was interested in several points he made. For instance, he claims that deaf Jews do not seek to arrange their own access to Temple because they are not encouraged to do so. In interpreting class we read about “learned helplessness,” and I wonder if what Schreiber notes is an example of that. Basically, I’m reading Schrieber’s statement as deaf Jews must wait to be told they can do something. Also, he claims that deaf Jewish people cannot use the phone, so arrangements for interpreters or other support cannot be made. To me, this sounds like learned helplessness because the deaf Jews are waiting for someone to do something for them instead of acting. Granted, the speech is from 1999, and technology has advanced rapidly since then. 

Schreiber also adds that a rabbi who is informed about deaf ways of being and sign language could fill the gap created by overworked, underinformed social services employees. This makes sense to me if I back up and look at American culture as a whole; Americans do not like paying into social services through their taxes, and the gaps thusly created are typically filled by religious groups. Soup kitchens, homeless shelters, fixing homes for elderly and disabled people, daycare, transportation, tutoring, in-home companionship—these are all services with which a religious community may assist. Why should a deaf Jewish person not assume the same could be provided to them? 

Lastly, the most problematic situation for Schreiber is the effects an exclusionary Temple has on his children. When Schreiber enrolls his children in religious education, he explains to the teacher that he’s deaf and cannot provide instruction as a hearing Jewish father would. Despite preparing the teacher, the children are sent home and told to “ask their father” to answer their questions. Because Schreiber is cut off from religious instruction, he cannot pass down knowledge to his children, which effectively stops an entire family line from embracing their faith. In fact, his children later marry people aren’t Jewish. The best hope, he notes, is that his children get trained in Judaism, learn to interpret, and then interpret for him so he can be welcomed back into Temple. Though the separation of church and state is critical for both government and faith communities, the Americans with Disabilities Act does not specify that a religious gathering must have an interpreter. If Schreiber wishes to continue practicing his faith in Temple, he must, essentially, give life to his own interpreters. Therefore, we get into all kinds of ethical stickiness about utilitarian purpose of hearing children in a deaf adult’s life. 

Published by Grab the Lapels

I'm a graduate of the MFA fiction writing program at the University of Notre Dame, which inspired me to follow along with trends in teaching, publishing, and reviewing. I also have an MA and BS from Central Michigan University. I used to teach composition, creative writing, and literature in higher education, then did a brief stint at a civic theater, followed by two years at a references desk at a public library. I'm now working toward my ASL Interpreter license.

2 thoughts on “Deaf World: essay reflection

  1. It does sound like learned helplessness. Even if he was stranded, with no ASL say, couldn’t he get a brother or a friend (or, heaven forbid, his wife) to answer questions to father. Was the rabbi intransigent or just unaware? I’m sure it’s an essay that would apply in lots of other areas.


    1. There could be a number of reasons, but the first ethical quandary that comes to mind is interpreters need to be impartial, meaning someone who isn’t a family member or friend. Also, those family members and friends can start to feel used if they’re constantly interpreting. There’s also the mental component of how hard it is to really listen and remember information you interpret. For many interpreters, it is described as a loop: in through the ear, out through the hands, gone. Another ethical consideration is if the interpreter is Jewish or knows Judiasm. It’s not just word for word, English to ASL. There must be comprehension of the concept and a culturally-appropriate equivalent in ASL and Deaf culture. I think ultimately the essay is about access and equality, though in the U.S. the Americans with Disabilities Act, which applies to d/Deaf people having a legal right to an interpreter free of charge, does not apply to religion.


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