Deaf, But Not Excluded

A Jewish overnight summer camp may be an experience most Jewish kids have come to expect, but it was with the opening last summer of a program created for deaf Jewish children–the only such program in the world–that they too, will have the same benefit. Now two Israeli deaf children will also get to join, promising to make summer 2015 the experience of a lifetime for them.

Eliran Ben Harrouch from Be’er Sheva and Noy Bailiti from Ashkelon, both 15 years-old, were the winners in a contest among Israel’s deaf children. Launched by Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff, director of The Jewish Deaf Foundation, the contest asked participants to create a video about their favorite Jewish holiday. The winners will get an all expenses paid summer at, respectively, the Chabad Camp Gan Israel of the Poconos and L’Man Achai summer camp which are both running programs for deaf, Jewish children.

Reviewed by a panel of three deaf judges, the videos, said Soudakoff via text message, were all illuminating, but Purim and Rosh Hashana came out on top.

Baliliti chose Purim. She loves how everyone dresses up in costumes. “I love joining in the competition and seeing if I win first,” shrugging her shoulders she says, “even if I win second.”

Ben Harrouch chose Rosh Hashanah, because “we start off with a new year and a new slate.”

Soudakoff, a tireless activist for the Jewish deaf community, says that there has been an outpouring of support for the three-week program. Raising the funds necessary is not easy, but he is clearly driven to reach out to as many Jewish deaf children as possible, he says.

“As much as we have advertised, we know that there are always a few people we haven’t reached out to yet,” he says. “If you know of a Jewish deaf or hard of hearing child anywhere in the world who communicates in sign language, please contact us via jewishdeaffoundation.org,” he offers.

A Unique Camp Experience

With no organized Jewish deaf communities, many of the campers are receiving their Jewish life immerision experience and will enjoy their first encounter with kids struggling with disabilities in a society that has not been kind to them. For Soudakoff and his team, the idea is to ensure that being deaf does not mean being excluded from a rich, full, Jewish life experience.

“They can ask all the questions they were always curious to know about and get an answer in their native language,” explains Soudakoff. “Now, they are among peers who are just like them. For deaf Jews, this is a very rare opportunity.”

The camp is expecting campers from Israel, France, Germany, Russia, Ukraine and the United Kingdom. Children are also coming from states including California, Arizona, Texas, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.

“Wow! My mother never told me about all this,” Joel Pennington of Houston, Texas, said after his exposure last year to Jewish life at L’Man Achai.

Camp counselors are deaf and fluent in sign language. “Many of our campers come from fully-deaf families, with deaf parents and siblings. They attend deaf schools and have deaf friends,” says Soudakoff via email.

Vered and Eyal Shalom, the parents whose deaf children attended camp last years said that “Ever since they came home, all they have been talking about has been the camp. They had a wonderful time, and most importantly, they are so proud to be deaf and Jewish.”

Watch a short video from last year’s program:

Watch the winning videos:

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