Spurred by a Torah portion, Alexis Kashar is breaking down barriers for deaf Jews

Spurred by a Torah portion, Alexis Kashar is breaking down barriers for
deaf Jews

By Lisa Keys

June 13, 2012

NEW YORK (JTA) — It was an ancient sentence — a fragment, really —
that changed everything for Alexis Kashar.

An attorney specializing in special education and disability rights,
she has successfully argued high-profile litigations, including one
against Los Angeles County for not making highway call boxes accessible
to people with disabilities.

Yet despite her focus on the rights of others, Kashar, 45, has
repeatedly encountered a roadblock in her own life: access to the
Jewish community. As a deaf Jew, she could not understand religious
services or participate in organized Jewish life.

An unlikely call to action occurred three years ago as the eldest of
her three children — none of whom is deaf or hard of hearing — was
about to become a bat mitzvah. Her child’s assigned Torah portion
included the verse in Leviticus that reads: “You shall not curse the
deaf nor put a stumbling block before the blind.”

Learning that the Torah had something to say about deaf people, she
said, was a “wake-up call” to push for unimpeded access to the
organized Jewish community.

“I wanted a part of it, I wanted my kids to have a part of it,” said
Kashar. “If I didn’t have a part of it, my kids wouldn’t, either.”

She knew that from experience. Growing up in New York and Texas, Kashar
and her family — her parents and grandparents are deaf — had little
interaction with the organized Jewish community. Nonetheless, she said
they were culturally Jewish.

“I consider myself Jewish inside and outside,” she said. “Whatever my
parents did, they did something right.”

For the past two years, Kashar has been president of the Jewish Deaf
Resource Center, an organization that promotes and advocates full
inclusion in organized Jewish life of the deaf and hard-of-hearing
community. Working closely with the center’s executive director, Naomi
Brunnlehrman, Kashar has spearheaded a variety of programs, including
the application of a grant from the UJA-Federation of New York to
subsidize interpreters for services and Jewish events.

“We’re not just about one interpreter in one temple,” she said about
the Hartsdale, N.Y.-based JDRC. “We’re about raising the Jewish
standards, making the Jewish community available to anyone.”

Speaking of deaf Jews, Kashar said, “We have excluded a group that is
willing and capable. JDRC is making a bridge to bring the deaf
community and the Jewish community together.”

Brunnlehrman praises Kashar for helping to expand the organization and
for forging partnerships with other Jewish organizations, including
Jewish Women International and the Jewish Funders Network.

“Our vision has widened,” Brunnlehrman said. “Alexis really believes
that when you open the doors for one group, you’re opening minds and
philosophies, so that we’re welcoming to all people. We’re trying to
change the cultural landscape within the wider Jewish community.
Alexis, in her discussions with people and her partnerships, has really
tried to convey that vision.”

Kashar succeed in doing that at her daughter’s bat mitzvah celebration.
Held at Scarsdale Synagogue Temples Tremont and Emanu-El in Scarsdale,
N.Y., the service was made accessible for deaf and hard-of-hearing
people. It marked the first time that Kashar and her extended family
prayed under the same roof, and it garnered her a new perspective on
organized Jewish life.

“It changed the way I thought about social justice,” she said. “It
wasn’t that they didn’t want me to be a part of the community; it was
just a lack of understanding and education. I didn’t have to go to
court. I just had to make the time. I had to be the change agent.

“I was raised with the notion that anything is possible. So when
presented with a good challenge, I intend to take it on, especially
when it involves social justice.”

Kashar began her own education at a school for the deaf and transferred
to a public school in the first grade. It wasn’t until high school that
Kashar and her family won a battle with the school district to provide
an interpreter. The experience was transformative: Her educational
opportunities expanded and Kashar realized she wanted to make special
education law her career.

At the University of Texas, she received a bachelor’s degree in finance
and a law degree. There she met her future husband, Gary, who also is a

The couple moved to Los Angeles in 1993, where Kashar worked at a
private firm that was a “powerhouse” of lawyers for special education.
It was an exciting time, as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
was just beginning to make its impact.

“I had the opportunity to test the waters and really do the first group
of litigations under the ADA,” she said, including successful suits
against Universal Studios and Weight Watchers to make their programs
accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing.

When the couple decided it was time to start a family, Kashar knew she
wanted her children to have a Jewish education. So they joined a
synagogue and later enrolled their eldest daughter in its preschool.

Still, she said, the congregation was hesitant to accommodate her
needs. “I was asking for what seemed to be the impossible: occasional
access to synagogue life via sign language interpreters,” she recalled.

Kashar didn’t push back; instead she agreed to provide some of the
funding for an interpreter. The lack of precedent was one hurdle.
Another was that for her daughter’s sake, she didn’t want to become
“that difficult parent.” Still, Kashar added, “with each child, I
became bolder.” (Over time, the synagogue ultimately assumed all
financial responsibility, she said.)

In 2004, the family relocated to Scarsdale, N.Y., and since the move
Kashar has dedicated herself to activism and pro bono work. In addition
to her JDRC role, she is the board president at the New York School for
the Deaf and chairs the public policy committee at the National
Association of the Deaf.

Last month, the JDRC sponsored the first Jewish Deaf and
Hard-of-Hearing Awareness Shabbat, encouraging rabbis of all
denominations nationwide to address inclusion issues in their sermons.
The event was timed to coincide with the same Torah portion that
Kashar’s oldest daughter read at her bat mitzvah two years ago.

“I would not have been involved if the Torah portion hadn’t been given
to her,” Kashar admitted.



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