Deaf Boys and Girls to Experience Summer Camp Steeped in Judaism
MAY 13 2015
BY: MENACHEM POSNER
Two different programs offer children sports, excursions and more in a warm atmosphere and Jewish context
For most of his childhood, 12-year-old Joel Pennington was unique. He was the only child in his Houston, Texas, neighborhood who was Deaf, and one of the only Jewish students in the special school for the Deaf that he attended in Austin.
“Joel has a very special soul and was always drawn to Judaism,” says his mother, Orit Pennington. “But we really had no way of teaching him beyond what he picked up at home.”
Orit made her son a special Sign Language Haggadah for Passover and another booklet for Rosh Hashanah, but was stymied when it came to finding a synagogue or Hebrew school where he would be able to interact with Jewish peers and experience Jewish tradition firsthand.
“His soul was thirsty for something more that I was not able to give him,” she acknowledges. “He knew it was there, but he could not access it.”
Orit describes what happened next as a “miracle.” In the spring of 2014, she attended a pidyon haben ceremony for first-born boys in an Orthodox synagogue, and the rabbi encouraged the attendants to make whatever request they wanted from G d at that special time. During the reception that followed, she met a person who put her in touch with Rabbi David Kastor, a Deaf rabbi; she never even knew one existed.
The two began learning on a weekly basis over VP (video phone). During one of their sessions, Kastor introduced his young pupil to Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff of the Jewish Deaf Foundation, who is Deaf and was busy organizing a Jewish overnight camp for Deaf boys within the framework of Camp L’man Achai in Upstate New York.
At the camp last summer, Joel found himself among 10 other Deaf boys from throughout the United States and Israel for a first-of-its-kind experience. Soudakoff, 23, and other Deaf staff members led discussions on Jewish topics, organized sports activities and took the kids on excursions, many of them focused on nature.
“For the first time, Joel was able to be part of a group—a Jewish Deaf boy among Jewish Deaf boys like himself,” says his mother. “There he was making challah,being fully engaged in a communal Shabbat dinner and just living Judaism in a very warm environment with boys like him.”
One of them was Elian Zfati, from Frederick, Md., who also relished the opportunity to interact with other Jewish Deaf boys. “My son especially enjoyed learning foreign sign languages from the children from Russia, Israel and other countries,” says his mother, Simi, who is also Deaf, in an interview conducted via an interpreter. “He also gained tremendously in his Jewish engagement, learned how to read the Hebrew alphabet and so much more.”
Simi Zfati learned about the camp from internal networking within the Deaf community, which she describes as close-knit. She says that many more of her friends will be sending their children there this year after hearing of last summer’s success.
“I myself went to Jewish camp when I was a child,” she says recalling her own childhood in a Deaf Orthodox Jewish home. “I loved going to camp, but I felt very alone a lot of the time, not able to understand what was happening and why.”
Learning in Their Own Way
But this summer will come full-circle for her. Ninety miles to the south of where Elian will attend camp, his two sisters, aged 10 and 12, will join with other Deaf girls for their own camp experience within Camp Gan Israel of the Poconos in Dingmans Ferry, Pa. This is the first time such a program has taken place there.
“They are so looking forward to the experience,” says their mom. “It will be so special for them to meet Deaf girls, and learn about Judaism and their common Jewish heritage in their own way.”
Altogether, Soudakoff expects 30 children to participate in the two programs, including eight boys and two girls from Israel, and two counselors who will be flying along with them.
“For me, it is amazing to see how the program has grown,” says Soudakoff. “As more and more children and their families become involved in this project, the more the Jewish Deaf community grows—in numbers, involvement and cohesiveness. Our community is thinking more about Judaism, talking about it more and doing more.” (Chabad.org)