In many ways, Yehoshua Soudakoff is a typical 22-year-old Chabad yeshivah student. Recently ordained after years of intensive Judaic studies in Canada and the United States, the California-born Soudakoff has served Jewish communities as a rabbinic intern, and shares Torah thoughts and inspiration on Chabad.org, as well as on his own website.
But there is something that also sets him apart: Soudakoff is deaf. And he is determined to bring Torah and Judaism into the Deaf community in ways not done before. (Soudakoff, interviewed via email, made it a point to capitalize “Deaf,” in communal or cultural contexts, depicting its uniqueness as an individual affiliation or group culture and language.)
To date, he has arranged Torah classes in American Sign Language (ASL), public menorah-lightings in Deaf communities and even ran a mini-summer-camp division for deaf children in Moscow, Russia. Now—through a unique partnership with Camp L’man Achai in Upstate New York—he plans to bring the Deaf Jewish camp experience to Jewish boys worldwide—something he says is a first.
“It was my first time in a camp setting,” Soudakoff explains about his time in Moscow, “and it was an amazing experience. The boys who came to the camp had never been involved with Jewish things before, and they barely knew anything. Chanukah candles andmatzah were foreign objects to them. For me, it is a special thing to spend time with children and impart some awareness of our beautiful Jewish heritage.”
Through networking within the Deaf community, in addition to and advertising through Deaf schools and communal organizations, Soudakoff hopes to attract boys from across the United States and beyond (he already has a camper registered from St. Petersburg, Russia). In Israel, a contest—sponsored by Soudakoff himself—is currently underway for a free plane ticket to the camp and a scholarship, open to 15- and 16-year-old deaf boys. The boys are encouraged to create a video explaining why they should come to the camp; three deaf Israeli judges will choose the winner.
Plans for a Full Experience
With children coming from across the world signing a polyglot of languages (even British Sign Language is completely unrelated to its American counterpart), Soudakoff expects that the boys—all of whom must have strong Sign Language skills—will be able to communicate just fine. “Deaf people from different countries usually are able to communicate with each other through universal gestures and other hints,” he explains. “After all, they are very used to communicating with others through hand and body language.”
In order to facilitate communication and interaction between children in the Deaf division and the rest of the camp, interpreters will be available. Their presence will ensure that integrated sports, meals and trips can allow the boys to build friendships and understanding that transcend the sound barrier. Soudakoff also plans to speak to mainstream campers about deafness and even encourage them to learn Sign Language.
Still, communication-heavy activities, such as Torah study and campfire storytelling, will likely be done separately since even a skilled interpreter cannot take the place of direct communication, and the boys are most comfortable learning from someone who speaks (or signs) their own language.
Creating a Middle Ground
Rabbi Yitzchok Steinmetz is director of the eight-week flagship program, which caters to Jewish boys from ages 8 to 16. Founded in 1991 by Rabbi Shmuel Kleinman, the camp’s original clientele were the thousands of children pouring into the New York metropolitan area from the former Soviet Union. Two decades later, located on a150-acre property with a private 50-acre lake in Andes, N.Y., the camp attracts 180 boys annually from all over the world representing a broad range of Judaic and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Steinmetz says that the Deaf program will open with two divisions: one for boys ages 8-11 and another for those ages 14-16. This year, the Deaf division will run for a little more than three weeks, from Aug. 7 to Aug. 25. The program will include an array of sports and recreational activities—soccer, swimming, boating, fishing, archery, photography, crafts—along with daily Judaic lessons and a host of Jewish programming.
Explaining the importance and potency of the new program, Soudakoff—who will be joined by other deaf counselors—notes that the problem is not just a lack of Jewish summer camps for deaf children; there is a bigger issue of accessibility and accommodation of Jewish programs for the Deaf. In the United States, very few deaf children receive a Jewish education because cash-strapped day schools aren’t able to provide the necessary resources for them, such as interpreters or teachers trained in educating the non-hearing. Thus, even children from traditional families end up in public schools, where they miss out on crucial Jewish experience and learning during their formative years.
He says that some deaf children may have been through a perfunctory bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, but the experience is often hollow for them, as they were not taught beforehand about what they are doing and why it is important.
When they grow up and start building a home, Soudakoff relates that they often choose partners for their Deafness and not their Jewishness. “To them, the ability to communicate trumps all other criteria, even if they are not Jewish. They feel more at home in the Deaf world than in the Jewish world. I am hoping that our camp will create a middle ground for Jewish deaf people—a ‘Jewish-Deaf world’ where it is possible to fully experience being Jewish as a deaf person.
“But if there is one expectation that I hope we will be able to fulfill, it is this: that these campers return home as proud Jews,” he concludes. “Through a thoroughly positive experience with Judaism, they should be happy and content to be Jewish, and inspired to grow in knowledge and appreciation of their heritage.”