In February 2013, just in time for Purim, the Institute for the Advancement of Deaf Persons in Israel, the Tzohar organization and the Tel Aviv International Synagogue inaugurated a Megillah reading in sign language.
The need for the deaf and the hearing impaired to participate in the mitzvah (Torah commandment) of listening to Megillat Esther (Book of Esther) being read is definitely there; 18,000 Israeli citizens are deaf, while an additional 200,000 Israelis are hearing impaired. However, the communication difficulties that accompany one losing his or her ability to hear often prevents deaf people from fully participating in Jewish religious rituals. Thus, for this reason, the Institute for the Advancement of Deaf Persons in Israel had jointly sponsored with Tzohar and the Tel Aviv International Synagogue a Megillah reading in sign language.
The Institute for the Advancement of Deaf Persons in Israel was established, to “improve the quality of life of deaf and hard-of-hearing people in education, both as receivers and as providers and to enable deaf and hard-of-hearing Israelis to live independent and productive lives with full access to the types of services and opportunities already available to the hearing population.” Rabbi Ariel Konstantyn, the founder of the Tel Aviv International Synagogue, proclaimed, “We were saved on Purim because the Jews came together as a people and through that merit, G-d acted to deliver us from our enemies. This unity is important and we can’t have an element of society missing out on an important experience of the Purim holiday, so this was the motivation behind the Megillah sign language initiative.” Similarly, Yael Kakon, the director of the Institute for the Advancement of Deaf Persons in Israel, noted how important it is for “the deaf and the hard of hearing to enjoy the special experience of the Megillah reading.”
This Megillah reading for the hearing impaired in Tel Aviv was not the first time that there was a Megillah reading for deaf people in Israel. In 2011, a group of deaf children under the auspices of Micha held a Megillah reading in Haifa. Then, Dafna Frumer of the Micha organization declared, “The deaf are part of our society. Children and adults should be made to feel part of society and that includes the symbolic elements of the holidays, such as the reading of the Megillah.”
In 2012, the Orthodox Union hosted 200 Megillah readings for the hearing impaired in synagogues across the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and in Israel. For their Megillah readings, the Orthodox Union utilized power point presentations so that people who could not hear would have the ability to follow along with the Megillah reading visually, in both Hebrew and English, accompanied by graphics to vividly illustrate the Purim story.
Jewish law proclaims that one must listen and follow along to every word uttered from the Megillah in order to fulfill the mitzvah of Purim, yet the hearing disabled are exempt from this commandment. Nevertheless, many deaf people do have a desire to participate in the Megillah reading as much as they are able to do, by either reading the Megillah story or following the Megillah story in sign language. Thus, doing a power point presentation or a Megillah reading in sign language are ways to help them feel more included within the Jewish community and to enjoy the Purim holiday as well.
By Rachel Avraham