Helping Jews the world over feel connected as opposed to isolated has long been the mission of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries and the corps of rabbinical students who annually fan out to disparate communities across the globe.
And as one such project in Rochester, N.Y., a university town that is no stranger to established Jewish infrastructure, demonstrates, the isolation needn’t be geographical.
This week, Joshua Soudakoff and Isser Lubecki, both 19, set off from Toronto for Rochester in order to address the special needs of deaf members of the Jewish community. Uniquely qualified for their mission – the Los Angeles-born Soudakoff and the Paris-born Lubecki are both deaf and attended Yeshivas Nefesh Dovid, a school geared towards the deaf – the students have been using a combination of American Sign Language and speech to provide programs and learning opportunities to one of the world’s largest deaf populations.
Rabbi Asher Yaras, director of the Chabad House Jewish Student Center serving Rochester-area colleges, attributed the city’s high concentration of deaf individuals to the Rochester Institute of Technology-affiliated National Technical Institute of the Deaf, one of the nation’s largest schools for the deaf. He estimated that 50 Jewish families in Rochester have at least one deaf member.
Soudakoff and Lubecki travelled to Rochester as part of the popularly-known “Roving Rabbis” project, the Rabbinical Summer Visitation Program run by the Chabad-Lubavitch educational arm. Their first formal event of the week was a meet-and-greet barbeque hosted by local deaf resident Dr. Carolyn Stern Spanjer and her husband Al, while their schedule has them running a weekend Shabbaton, a challah-baking session and children’s activities.
“We’re offering people the chance to meet with the students to learn something they’ve always wanted to learn but couldn’t because of the language barrier,” said Yaras. “It could be anything from the Jewish view on heart transplants to the weekly Torah portion.”
Diana Pryntz, one of 20 people who attended the barbeque, heard about the students’ visit from her hearing husband, who provided sign-language interpretation at a recent event hosted by Yaras’ center. Pryntz, a former NTID student, helped spread the word through a mailing list she coordinates for the Jewish deaf community.
“It was fun to see everyone and to meet the two rabbinical students,” she said.