As the Chabad shaliach to the global deaf community, Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff sounds the call of Torah for those who could never before hear it
Photos: Ezra Trabelsi
You know those inspiring stories about someone who overcomes enormous challenges to accomplish the impossible? Well, that’s the kind of story I planned on writing about Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff. Rabbi Soudakoff, deaf from birth, left the LA public school system for yeshivah, eventually earned semichah despite being unable to hear the shiurim, and at the young age of 20, had already become a leader of the Jewish deaf in America. But Rabbi Soudakoff essentially waves all that away, because his new frontier is so much larger than his own personal victories. In his new role as the Chabad shaliach to the global deaf community, he’s bridging the chasm that often separates deaf Jews from normative Jewish life and bringing Yiddishkeit to those who felt they were the Torah’s outcasts. And that story has only just begun.
Unlike the vast majority of deaf children who are born to hearing parents, Yehoshua Soudakoff was born into a deaf home. His parents and three siblings are all deaf, which, he says, was actually a tremendous blessing for him. When hearing parents have a deaf child, there is a lot of confusion about how to raise him. The parents don’t know sign language and have to figure out how to communicate with their child. Some teach their children to lip-read from infancy, hoping they’ll integrate into the hearing world; many opt for cochlear implants, but they aren’t always a perfect solution either. (Cochlear implants stimulate the auditory nerves with electronic signals, which the child learns, through intensive training, to interpret as speech.)
When his own parents were growing up, his grandparents never taught them sign language, expecting them to learn to communicate with others only by speaking in English. They only learned to sign once they entered college and encountered other deaf people who signed. As they learned ASL (American Sign Language), they found they could express themselves better, and decided to communicate that way with their own children. And so, Rabbi Soudakoff (who doesn’t have implants but does wear hearing aids, which enable him to hear noises although he can’t differentiate between them), was surrounded by sign language from day one, and at nine months he was already signing to his parents that he wanted his bottle.
“Also,” Rabbi Soudakoff adds, communicating in ASL through his interpreter, Nanette, “deaf kids in hearing families often wind up on the sidelines, through no one’s fault. The fact is that they’re always missing things. Someone makes a joke and they don’t get what everyone’s laughing about. They get used to being left out. They’re trained to give up and say, ‘whatever.’ So having a deaf family made a huge difference in my confidence level.”
Rabbi Soudakoff’s parents did all they could to integrate him into a hearing world. He attended public school in an integrated classroom of both deaf and hearing children, and also received years of speech therapy both in school and at home. As his parents were traditional and very Jewishly-conscious, his bar mitzvah at the Kosel — where he leined from the Torah himself, boosted by lots of speech therapy and private sessions with a kriah tutor — sparked an unquenchable thirst for Jewish knowledge and Torah. He wanted to advance in this area, and although his parents agreed to send him to a Jewish high school, none of the local yeshivos had the resources — which would include hiring a full-time ASL interpreter — to meet his needs. Then he heard about Nefesh Dovid in Toronto, the only yeshivah in the world created specifically for bochurim who are deaf or hard of hearing. So off he went, and for the first time in his life, he met other deaf boys who were religious, many of whom remain his close friends. The shiurim at Nefesh Dovid — on par with a regular yeshivah — are all in sign language. Rosh Yeshivah Rav Chaim Tzvi Kakon, who is himself deaf and is a living inspiration to his talmidim of what they can accomplish, “Yiddified” ASL by inventing signs for Gemara terms.
After graduating from Nefesh Dovid, Yehoshua returned to Los Angeles, where he lived in a yeshivah dorm, learning in the mornings and evenings there while taking college courses. It was quite a challenge, living in a dorm and sitting in a beis medrash where no one else knew sign language, but learning Torah and living in a Jewish environment where people were inspired to grow in Yiddishkeit made up for the discomfort.
During this time, with the help of a friend, he started making videos explaining basic Judaism in sign language, which he posted online. Immediately, the responses came pouring in.
“So many people said, ‘Wow, thank you! Now I finally understand. No one ever explained this to me before.’ That made me realize how much of a market for this there is,” he says. That gave him the idea of becoming a rabbi for the deaf community. And when Rabbi Soudakoff has an idea, he acts on it without hesitation.
So off he went to Crown Heights to study for semichah.
“But you didn’t have an interpreter. What made you think you’d succeed?” I just had to interject.
“Well, everyone thought I was crazy,” says Rabbi Soudakoff. Everyone, that is, except the rosh yeshivah. He recognized Yehoshua’s determination to succeed in a regular yeshivah environment, despite the yeshivah’s lack of experience with deaf students. Moved by Yehoshua’s unshakable drive to understand, he sat with Yehoshua every afternoon and wrote up the daily shiur for him.
But, Rabbi Soudakoff admits, he was very isolated. No one could communicate with him, let alone learn with him. “The Beis Yosef was my chavrusa,” he says of those early months. “True, it wasn’t easy, but then again, all of life is a challenge. So I told myself, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to get easier.’ And I saw that in the deaf community, there was a huge void.” There are only three other deaf rabbis in North America, he says, and they’re all much older. “It was clear that this was something that was waiting for me.”
Yehoshua wasted no time in trying to fill that void. At age 20, he founded the Jewish Deaf Foundation and organized outreach events in New York that attracted hundreds. One day he met a Russian man who begged him to do something for deaf Russian kids. Others might respond, “I’m not Russian; that’s not my job.” But not Yehoshua. Partnering with Chabad in Russia, he launched the world’s first Jewish summer camp for deaf children. Its success inspired him to create an international boys’ camp in the US, followed by a girls’ camp.
After he received semichah, Rabbi Soudakoff intended to continue his work in America, but all that changed when he met his wife, Cheftziba, a deaf teacher from Acco. She insisted on building a home in Eretz Yisrael, and Reb Yehoshua was characteristically undaunted and even enthusiastic about making aliyah. Despite being a new immigrant, Rabbi Soudakoff never considered temporarily putting his kiruv and education efforts on hold. But as an individual, his resources were limited. And so, he approached some Chabad networks with the idea of creating a shlichus to the deaf.
“Devoted Chabad shluchim have gone out to the most remote communities to spread Yiddishkeit, but the deaf community, even in Eretz Yisrael, had no one,” he says. And then, the newly married Rabbi and Rebbetzin Soudakoff became the official shluchim to the global deaf community.
Here, in Rabbi Soudakoff’s view, is where the real story begins.
The young shluchim founded their nonprofit organization and Chabad center, which they named Chushim Ben Dan, after the son of Dan ben Yaakov, who was deaf. When Yaakov was brought to Chevron for burial in Mearas Hamachpeilah, Eisav tried to stop the procession. Chushim couldn’t hear the details of the ruckus, but when he saw that Eisav was making trouble, he grabbed his staff and killed Eisav with a single blow.
“Chushim was a minor figure, but in the end he saved the day,” says Rabbi Soudakoff. “That’s what we’re trying to do. We can become active participants in the Jewish community. Not just being helped, receiving benefits. We can give back to the community, too.”
Chushim, located in Rishon L’Tzion, is a religious center for the deaf and hard of hearing. Not “hearing impaired,” Rabbi Soudakoff clarifies. That term, he says, is negative, as it focuses on the deficiency. “I want to give you a different perspective. A friend of mine had a baby. When the doctors informed him that his son had failed the hearing test, he told them, ‘He didn’t fail the hearing test; he passed the deaf test!’ What he meant was that we’re the ones who choose if we want to live our lives complaining all the time, or if we want to make lemonade out of lemons. It’s a much more healthy and happy perspective.”
No kiruv rabbi has it easy. But objectively, Rabbi Soudakoff’s job is even more challenging. Because what separates countless deaf Jews from Yiddishkeit isn’t just ignorance. It’s an often-impenetrable wall of exclusion.
“You would not believe how many deaf people have told me they’re patur from mitzvos and have no place in Judaism. It’s terrible, and it isn’t true,” he relates, explaining that deaf people today aren’t what they were in the times of the Gemara or the Shulchan Aruch. In those times, deaf people were unable to communicate, which often led to stunted intellectual development. Today, with educational opportunities, various modes of communication, and technological advances, that’s simply not the case. There are deaf doctors, lawyers, professors… even rabbis. That’s why many contemporary poskim have reconsidered the halachic status of deaf people in our times. (Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ztz”l, for example, in Minchas Shlomo siman 34, concludes: “Chas v’shalom to push them away from mitzvos.”)
Yet until the popularization of cochlear implants in recent years, deaf Jews, even those from frum families, were often largely unintegrated in religious life. Children who couldn’t hear and speak clearly generally couldn’t find their place in the school system. Many of them were told they were patur from the mitzvos, and they drifted away from Jewish practice.
“Many deaf Jews assume that Judaism has nothing for them, that they’re patur from mitzvos so they’re not really an essential part of the Jewish People,” Rabbi Soudakoff says. “And they just accept that. My job is to try to bring them back.”
The rate of assimilation in the deaf community is much higher than in the general Jewish population, primarily because deaf Jews often choose to affiliate with the deaf over their hearing brethren, and many marry spouses who are deaf but not Jewish. While kiruv endeavors have burgeoned over the last decades, deaf people often miss out. There are some dedicated kiruv organizations for the deaf (for example, the OU’s Our Way/Yachad, under the direction of Rabbi Eliezer Lederfeind, has been active since 1969 in providing for the social, religious, and education needs of Jewish deaf youth and adults), but most deaf Jews have never received a formal Jewish education.
Even if a deaf person wants to connect to Judaism, Rabbi Soudakoff explains, they face formidable challenges. They need more help entering the religious community than a hearing person, but they generally receive less. When they walk into a shul, few people reach out to them; people often become nervous when a “disabled” person enters the room, and, unsure of how to approach the deaf person or help him, they just don’t. And if the deaf newcomer doesn’t become comfortable in the community, at some point they’ll probably give up.
In America, the secular world is very sensitive to the needs of the hard of hearing. Colleges are obligated by law to provide accommodations for deaf students. But when it comes to Jewish life, the barriers are, for the most part, still in place. For new deaf congregants, shuls are simply not accessible, says Rabbi Soudakoff. They can’t keep track of where the chazzan is holding, they might make embarrassing blunders, and the whole experience can become tainted with frustration.
The saddest part is, he says, that deaf Jews often find other religions attractive. Deaf church services draw hundreds of participants to their events, provide free food and produce fascinating videos. “You would not believe how many deaf Jews go to church, because they’re more accessible and more deaf-friendly.”
Even observant deaf Jews aren’t immune to the falsehood that Judaism belongs to those who hear. One man asked Rabbi Soudakoff, “Do you think G-d hears my prayers, even though I can’t articulate the words clearly?” Rabbi Soudakoff is still distressed by that question. “This person is not a young man. He’s been davening three times a day for decades, and he still isn’t sure if Hashem is hearing him.”
Rabbi Soudakoff hopes that Chushim, which opened its doors in 2018, will help illuminate that darkness, and not just in Rishon L’Tzion. Every Succos, Rabbi Soudakoff drives a mobile succah from Metulah in the north to Eilat on the Egyptian border, meeting with deaf people along the way and giving them the opportunity to shake the lulav. Last year’s Chanukah celebration drew over 1,000 attendants, making it the largest event ever for deaf Jews in Israel.
Rabbi Yehoshua and Rebbetzin Cheftziba offer a variety of classes, host holiday celebrations and frequent Shabbos programs, and for many participants, this is the first time they’ve ever experienced Shabbos or seen a sefer Torah.
During the Yamim Noraim, Chushim becomes both shul and hotel. The Chabad center can only accommodate 20 guests, but in that small space, newly observant deaf Jews find the one shul that has room for them. If weekday or Shabbos davening is hard for them to follow in regular synagogues, the tefillos of the Yamim Noraim are practically impossible. But here, while the chazzan davens from the amud, another man shows the page number of the machzor, indicates when to answer, and even signs parts of the davening in synchronized translation. With Rabbi Soudakoff’s assistance, the congregants “sing” along with the chazzan by signing the words together.
Still, how do deaf Jews deal with “hearing” mitzvos, such as tekias shofar or hearing the Megillah? Rabbi Soudakoff explains that because there is a sh’eilah about hearing the tekios through a hearing aid, he takes out his hearing aids and has someone blow the shofar directly into his ear, in which case he’s able to slightly hear the blasts. Some deaf people put their hands on the shofar and “hear” the vibrations. On the advice of Rav Kakon from Nefesh Dovid, the best way to fulfill the mitzvah of Megillah is to read it himself from a kosher scroll.
His goal is to open a proper shul for the deaf that can accommodate the large number of people who would like to attend, and find it difficult to go to a “regular” shul. A permanent synagogue for the deaf would also send a symbolic message to deaf Jews that they are equal members of Klal Yisrael.
When Rabbi Soudakoff moved to Israel, he brought along his famous summer camps as well. Each summer, deaf youth from all over the world join the Soudakoffs for three transformative weeks.
But it’s not only about a few weeks of inspiration or a comfortable shul. Rabbi Soudakoff and a team have begun to tackle an unprecedented project: translating the entire Tanach to Israeli Sign Language.
“Although deaf people can read the Tanach in Lashon Kodesh or another written language, they will benefit immensely from our translation,” Rabbi Soudakoff explains. “First of all, the native language of many deaf people is sign language. It’s not just a different language, it’s a different type of language. Sign language is a visual, rather than verbal, form of communication. Because its users learn much more visually than most hearing people, the ability to see the text unfolding will greatly enhance their ability to understand and connect to the Tanach.”
Furthermore, Judaism emphasizes the importance of hearing the Torah read aloud. We read from the Torah in shul at least four times every week. “This is about experiencing the text,” he says. “There’s something very powerful about someone telling us the story. Our translation will allow deaf Jews to experience the Word of Hashem in that way for the first time.” Before last Shavuos, Soudakoff released a video translation of Megillas Rus, and work on Sefer Bereishis and Megillas Esther are under way.
Intriguing, inspiring programs notwithstanding, how do you influence people who’ve been convinced their whole life that they can’t have any meaningful connection to Yiddishkeit?
“Well,” says Rabbi Soudakoff thoughtfully, “they see me, a deaf rabbi, and for the first time, they say to themselves, ‘Hey, it’s possible for a deaf person to be involved in Judaism.’ That sends a very powerful message. Also, as a deaf rabbi, I’m able to help them connect to Judaism in a way a hearing rabbi generally can’t. A deaf rabbi will understand their question, know where they’re coming from. It’s a totally different comfort level for them.”
Perhaps, though, there’s more about Rabbi Soudakoff than his deafness that contributes to his effectiveness. His energy and excitement, his infectious smile, and his unending positivity are so powerful that they just draw you in. But most of all, Rabbi Soudakoff is a real shaliach. He knows that there’s no one else who can do his job, so he does it with the fullest measure of devotion.
Rabbi Soudakoff’s ultimate vision, though, is that the larger religious community will become accessible to the deaf.
“I want the hearing world to know how they can help me do my shlichus — and all it takes is a little more awareness and sensitivity. When a hard-of-hearing person walks into your shul, go up to him (most deaf people can lip-read). Simple things like pointing out when someone is making Kiddush, or offering to explain what the rabbi said in his derashah, besides their obvious benefit, make the visitor feel comfortable and welcome — the difference between whether he never comes again or comes every week.”
Shiurim can easily be made more accessible as well. “If you post a video,” says Rabbi Soudakoff, “add captions, or at least a transcript. There are a thousand daf yomi audio shiurim out there, and some on video, but none are accessible for deaf people. If you’re going to make an event, say, a challah workshop, write at the bottom of your advertisement that, if you’d like, you can request an interpreter, and please let us know a day in advance. A deaf person who sees that will say, ‘Wow, I can be a part of this.’ Maybe they’ll ask for an interpreter, maybe they won’t, but they’ll know they’re welcome and appreciated.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 844)
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