Deaf Congregation ‘Revolutionary’ Rabbi Skokie Inspires Series


SKOKIE, IL – A local rabbi who has spent nearly half a century running the Chicago area’s only synagogue for the deaf community is the subject of the first episode of a new web series.

Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer came to the Chicago area in the early 1970s at the invitation of the Hebrew Association of the Deaf, a group of about 11 families around Skokie that aimed to turn the group into a full-fledged synagogue. .

Goldhamer, 76, of Evanston, had become fascinated with ‘hand dancing’ while in seminary and quickly learned sign language. He became the founding rabbi of Congregation Bene Shalom in 1972.

“We first wanted to show that deaf people can do anything that hearing people can do except hear. After we showed that, more and more deaf people joined our congregation,” Goldhamer told Patch.

“What we did was create a revolution. What is the revolution? Let everyone – just like the revolution of the sixties – all blacks, whites, Indians, Chicanos, Jews, everyone is invited to take leadership roles in our congregation, ”he added.

Goldhamer said Christian congregations are ahead of Jewish congregations when it comes to integrating people who cannot hear in their communities. Jewish religious law, he said, relegates deaf people to a secondary position where they cannot have leadership roles and are not called upon to perform bar and bat mitzvahs.

“The Talmud is very clear when it says ‘the deaf person’, ‘the woman’, ‘the mentally handicapped person’, – deaf woman, mentally handicapped – physically handicapped, hunchbacked, they cannot lead the congregation from the bimah “said Goldhamer.

“A deaf person has no mental competence, that’s what the Talmud says,” he said. “We said, ‘Bullshit. The deaf person has as many mental skills as a hearing person. Do your best. Focus on God, focus on the Jewish religion, focus on helping others. “”

Goldhamer said the dominant view of disability and divinity has evolved over the past few decades.

“If you are disabled, God wanted you to be disabled, and if God wanted you to be disabled, then God didn’t want you to stand on the bimah and become a rabbi,” he said, describing the mentality when he started at Bene Shalom. “But over the years this myopic thinking was let go, and by the end of a number of years deaf people across the country adopted our new deaf and hearing congregation.”

Today, deaf people can hold leadership positions in Reform synagogues and some conservative synagogues, he said, but there are no Orthodox rabbis who are deaf.

In 1972, Goldhamer was speaking about his new congregation in a Walgreens when he was overheard by Harry Trigg, a longtime local television executive, who was program director at WMAQ-TV at the time. The rabbi said Trigg told him he had the face of a presenter and invited him to sign the news while delivering it.

“I said, ‘Uh, let me think, is the Pope Catholic? Yes, I would like to be a news anchor,'” Goldhamer recalls. “I said, ‘I’d rather be a rabbi, but since I don’t make a lot of money, yes, I would like to be a part-time news anchor, but I would like to continue to be a Jewish minister full time. deaf Jews in Judaism so that deaf Jews and hearing Jews can work together to manifest the laws of the Talmud, the laws of Torah and the laws of decency.

“It doesn’t matter if you are deaf, it doesn’t matter if you are in a wheelchair, it doesn’t matter if you are blind, it doesn’t matter if you can’t walk well. you do your best to work for the greatness, goodness, power, and presence of God. “

Goldhamer spent about four years there as a news anchor, bristling with the requirement to wear a suit jacket and refusing pleas to put on hand makeup to cover a scar from botched radiation therapy he suffered when ‘he was a baby. He said the station had received numerous letters from viewers who were uncomfortable with his scars and believes this led to his dismissal from the station.

After serving as an assistant professor at Gallaudet University, where classes are taught in American Sign Language, he returned in 1992 to found Hebrew Seminary, the world’s first rabbinical school for the deaf and hearing. At least 20 deaf rabbis have graduated from the school. When it started, there were no deaf rabbis anywhere, including in Israel, Goldhamer said.

The rabbi’s work recently caught the attention of Tiffany Woolf, who has produced several web series focusing on seniors since the founding of Silver Screen Studios in 2017. After working in social work and public relations, she started to tell old people stories.

“My main focus for this when I first picked up the camera was: Gosh, if anyone can be inspired after watching these movies to call their grandparents, or their parents, or their aunt, or even of people they know in their neighborhood and who just have conversations with them, that would be a victory, ”Woolfe told Patch.

“If people could be inspired to have people from other generations, if they could maybe, instead of watching the Kardashians for inspiration, call their grandparents and capture their stories and find your roots and your legacy and it is so meaningful, ”she added. . “It’s such a two-way exchange. It’s great that the older generations are being asked. So many people don’t ask them anything, and they are the keepers of so much wisdom, history and knowledge that we should. talk to them about resilience and about history and what tips for living a good life. “

Tiffany Woolfe is the founder and co-creator of Silver Screen Studios. (Silver Screen Studios)

Goldhamer is featured in the episode of “Sign of the Times”, Woolfe’s fourth series produced with co-creator Noam Dromi and the first one she directed. The episodes of each series are up to about 10 minutes long with up to seven per season.

“We interview older models who, even at their age, are still trying to challenge the status quo and make the world a better place and to be human rights defenders and activists, and I like to say let Rabbi Goldhamer stand for kindness, ”Woolfe said.

“I thought that was kind of the lovely irony of the whole story, is that here he faced trauma as a child, with the botched radiation at just 30 days old, which has really affected her whole life with her burnt hand and great pain and different feeling, ”she said. “Then the beautiful irony is that he uses his hands to sign for others, perhaps what would have been considered marginalized communities.”

In addition to his work as a rabbi and teacher, Goldhamer is also a accomplished painter.

“I paint about two hours a day,” he said. “I love painting. It inspires me to learn more Judaism, and when I learn Judaism, it inspires me even more to paint. Painting and Judaism are like brothers and sisters to me.”

Since the coronavirus pandemic replaced the congregation’s in-person church services with services run on video conferencing software, Bene shalom has been able to expand access to people across the continent.

“More and more people have joined our congregation over the past two years, Deaf people from Winnipeg, Deaf people from Vancouver, Deaf people from California, Deaf people from Halifax, Deaf people from Boston. and from New York, parents of deaf people, ”he said. noted. “It was and is extremely inspiring and as I know, once again, I am called to do this work by the Lord our God.”

But even though the move to remote services widened the reach of Congregation Bene Shalom, it remained under its budget.

a online fundraising campaign runs out of around $ 20,000 of its objective of closing its budget deficit by the end of September. Funds are needed to cover the cost of basic necessities, performers, programming and a free community pantry.

“We still need a lot of money,” he said. “Because most of the people who hear are a lot richer than those who can’t hear, because they have much better jobs.”

To concern: Sign of the times episode 1 – listen, oh Israel

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