A precedent was set this Monday (18 May 2003) when Dafna faced a Masorti (Conservative) Beit Din, in sign language. Dafna was born in the Muslim Arab world, to a deaf mother, with several deaf siblings. She is twenty years old and lives at a Boarding School in the north of the Israel.
The first question that was asked of her by the Av Beit Din, Rabbi Reuven Hammer, is why she wants to be a Jew. Dafna answered with great sincerity, and told her story in sign language. Her social worker translated into Hebrew for the three Rabbis on the Beit Din.
As a deaf person she went to a Jewish boarding school, as there is no Arab equivalent. She was fascinated by the story of Moses, (which she told at great length to the Rabbis.) She fell in love with the Torah at age 12, and has been thirsty to learn Judaism ever since.
I met her earlier in the school year, when we offered a bar/bat mitzvah program at her school, and did not limit it by age. At the first lesson, Dafna participated actively and shook with excitement. "Finally I am learning Judaism intensively!" Apparently she brought a name of one Rabbi after another to her social worker, but none agreed to teach her for conversion, some refused because she is deaf, some because she is Arab. She was rejected and given a negative answer some twenty times.
I asked Rabbi Andy Sacks if the Masorti Movement would agree to convert her,and was told that it was possible. So I offered to teach her, and have worked with her intensely for most of the year. She was a delight to teach, because everything touched her and excited her. She was overwhelmed the first time she went into a synagogue to learn the synagogue symbols.
Every lesson we lit Shabbat candles together, seeing the light, in fact all our lessons emphasized Dafna's four strongest senses. But communication was never an obstacle. I taught her the blessings and prayers in sign language, but we discussed theology with the help of her social worker's interpretation. Dafna's love of Judaism was an inspiration in our lessons, and we discussed relationships sanctioned by Judaism. How does one love? With all one's heart, with all one's soul, with all one's might, listening means opening up one's life to Elohim and to the needs of other people. Hear O Israel.
The three Rabbis who sat on the Beit Din had never seen the blessings, torah stories and a description of the holidays with the visual clarity which sign language brings. Rabbi Joel Berman said, "pleasant surprises filled the entire encounter. She was eager to share even more information than we asked for. For example, we asked about other candles that are lit, and she not only told about Havdalah but about the three stars in the sky." Rabbi Reuven Hammer, who has a Doctorate in Special Education said, "I was very taken with her because she was so sincere and anxious to express herself. You could see it in her hands and in her eyes. It was more than beautiful. " Rabbi Andy Sacks said, " it was incredible, I am aware how shut out the Deaf community is from the Jewish world, they are almost invisible. Dafna was exceptionally brave in wanting to learn about Judaism, in facing the Beit Din, in going to the mikvah, in signing her answers to hearing people.
When Dafna emerged from behind the curtain of the Mikvah, her face was shining. She had a radiant presence and smile."
I was very privileged to be the Mikvah attendant. We were alone behind the curtain, at a stunning outdoor mikvah in a nature setting. The Rabbis could hear our brachot through the curtain, Dafna vocalizes when she signs. I held up a towel to guard Dafna's privacy. She immersed herself in the freezing cold pool of spring water. Her hands shook with the cold as we signed and vocalized the bracha for immersing in a mikveh. She dunked a second time, "kosher" I pronounced it, and we blessed the Shecheyanu prayer. She dunked a third time, and I held the towel out to her, and my hand to help her up the ladder steps. After she dressed we had a special hug. How does one love? With all one's heart, with all one's soul, with all one's might, listening means opening up one's life to Elohim and to the needs of other people. Hear O Israel. Dafna, a young Jewish woman, has proven that.
Dafna's bat mitzvah will take place very soon, in sign language with a few other Jewish young people.