Yehudah Wengrofsky

Teaching the Deaf to Read Hebrew

A popular course designed to teach Hebrew reading to help Jews actively participate in synagogue has also been shown effective in reaching an often overlooked and underserved segment of the Jewish community: the deaf.

In March 2019, Rabbi Mendel Begun, a JLI instructor based in Chula Vista, near the California border with Mexico, taught Read It In Hebrew for the first time. Among Rabbi Begun’s students was and is Zofia Eva Schwalb, a hearing impaired woman originally from Poland.  In particular, she found that RIIH’s flashcards facilitated her visual learning, opening up the language to her: “The cards are extremely helpful. Between reading lips and seeing the words, I could understand the sounds. I would absolutely recommend this course for people with hearing disabilities.”  By offering courses in a variety of teaching modalities – group and individuated learning, auditory as well as visual learning – JLI was able to meet her need.

When she enrolled, Zofia was already regularly attending Shabbat services, but RIIH raised her Jewish involvement to the next level. As Rabbi Begun suggests: “The largest obstacle to people being more Jewishly active – in coming to synagogue – is a general lack of Hebrew language proficiency. Even just being able to follow along is very important to developing [their] Judaism.”

Zofia describes a transformation in her spiritual experience: “Before, when I would come to services, I could not make out any words. I would just hear a buzz.  Now, after Read It In Hebrew, I can read the Chumash and some psalms and pick up some words, which is more than just enjoyable – it is literally more meaningful. I am more motivated to learn and read my morning prayer, especially the Sh’ma. I know the Sh’ma by heart, but reading it makes it that much more real and present for me.” After taking RIIH, Zofia arranged a weekly Hebrew language tutorial with Rabbi Begun to move toward fluency: “Learning Hebrew will help me connect to the Jewish people historically and internationally. Hebrew is the Jewish ‘lingua franca’ – it’s known by Jews everywhere.”

About the Author
Impervious to reasonable suggestion, Yehudah Wengrofsky continues to scribble, noshe, and daven in the historic Lower East Side of New York City. Wengrofsky's edited volume of the writings of the late Professor Irving (Yitzchok) Block on the mysticism of Aristotle and Maimonides is forthcoming from the University of Toronto Press.
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