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December 19, 2016 2:59 pm

First-Ever Deaf Director of Hillel Aims to Enable Hard-of-Hearing Students to Embrace Their Jewish Identity

avatar by Lea Speyer

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Gallaudet University Hillel Director Jacob Salem. Photo: Facebook.

Gallaudet University Hillel Director Jacob Salem. Photo: Facebook.

The first ever Deaf director of the branch for the Deaf of the campus Jewish organization Hillel said he is aiming to solve the “huge problem” of re-connecting the next generation of Deaf Jewish leaders with their religion and culture, The Washington Post reported.  

According to the report, Jacob Salem of Gallaudet University in Washington, DC — one of the world’s leading institutions for the Deaf and hard of hearing — said many such students have “los[t] interest in Jewish life, because there are no interpreters.”

Through his new position, the 25-year-old Salem — who is proficient in six languages, including Latin and Spanish — said he is striving to create a campus environment for the approximately 45 students affiliated with the Hillel to embrace both their identities —  as Jews and members of the Deaf community.

“I really enjoy seeing how they find Jewish life more inspiring,” he said, citing events such as a weekly ASL (American Sign Language) Shabbat dinner, which features presentations by pillars of the Deaf Jewish world. “I can see them being leaders. As rabbis. As senators. As presidents.”

Gallaudet graduate student Lena Jenny told The Washington Post that she is “more prepared to see eye to eye with a more rich spectrum of Jews, especially Deaf Jews,” through her interactions with Salem and the wider Hillel community at the school.

Salem explained that his drive to help students at Gallaudet strengthen their Judaism came in large part from his own sense of isolation growing up as a deaf Jew. He said that while he was able to lip-read Hebrew words during religious services, it was still very hard to feel connected.

It was only when he attended a sign language Birthright trip to Israel and met Deaf rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff that he realized reading lips at synagogue “wasn’t as powerful as sitting down with a deaf rabbi and asking a thousand zillion questions,” Salem recounted.

The Washington Post reported that Salem is also taking his cause outside of the Gallaudet Jewish community, engaging in talks with local synagogues of various denominations on the possibility of their offering services in sign language.

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