Bringing Judaism’s oral law to the deaf

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Click photo to download. Caption: Yosef Tolidano, founder of the Ma’aseh Nissim kollel for the deaf, with his grandfather Rav Nissim Tolidano (left). Credit: Courtesy Ma’aseh Nissim.

JERUSALEM—If you are a religious deaf man in Israel, the traditional doors to Jewish learning have been in so many ways closed to you.

But Yosef Tolidano—a young deaf man descended from a long and distinguished line of Sephardic rabbis—has pulled open those doors, making it possible for the deaf to immerse themselves in the Talmud, which along with the Mishnah is known as Judaism’s “oral law.”

It has been eight months since Tolidano welcomed the first students to his new kollel (institute for advance Talmudic and rabbinic studies) for the deaf, called Ma’aseh Nissim (Hebrew for “the maker of miracles”).Now at 15 young men and growing monthly, this first-of-its kind program makes it possible for them to take their rightful place amid the most challenging levels of Jewish learning: the passionate debates, fine streams of commentary, logical twists and turns, and precise definitions of Jewish law that make up the Talmud (“Gemara” in Aramaic) itself.

These joys have long eluded the deaf since the Talmud is, at heart, an oral tradition. One needs to listen closely to know whether an intonation is a question (“kushia” in Aramaic) being cited, or its answer (“terutz”). The intricacies of Talmud mean that each point is pivotal to arriving at the next one. If one is deaf, no amount of lip reading can provide a clue for the inflections that are necessary for getting through Talmud study.

An observer coming in from the noisy Jerusalem street to witness Ma’aseh Nissim (which runs Sunday-Thursday at the Jerusalem kollel of Rabbi Moshe Fetehi) can’t help but marvel at the intensity of mental activity and multiple communications crosscurrents occupying a room that is overwhelmingly silent.

Click photo to download. Caption: Inside Yosef Tolidano's kollel for the deaf in Jerusalem, called Ma’aseh Nissim (which means "the maker of miracles"). Credit: Courtesy Ma’aseh Nissim.

Chevrusas (study partners) can be seen debating points of Jewish law, their fingers flying. Tolidano moves through the silent cacophany, taking turns learning with each pair, adding comments in both sign and speech.

Tolidano was born hearing 31 years ago in Tel Aviv, the second of five children of Rav Yochanan and Oshra Tolidano, until a bout of meningitis in infancy left him deaf in both ears. He attended a school for hearing children and learned to read lips and speak. But, unlike many other religious parents who insist their deaf children fit into the hearing world—which means solely speech and lip-reading, a cumbersome method prone to misunderstandings—young Tolidano had a mother who saw the value of signing for her son. So convinced was she of its importance that, when he was a child, she brought a teacher into her home to teach sign language to other deaf children and their mothers.

Now, most of Tolidano’s students (who range in age from 25-35) receive the same special treatment. Though a few were already proficient in ISL (Israeli Sign Language) and a couple in ASL (American Sign Language) before arriving at Ma’aseh Nissim, for others the kollel is their first chance to enjoy the freedom of communicating in sign language.

“Even if they know a little sign, too many deaf kids are embarrassed to speak with their hands and stayed closed off,” says Tolidano. “This is the place they can open up and really communicate.”

Tolidano knows the challenges. Having spent 15 years in a hearing yeshiva with 400 other students, he says “it was very difficult although I had a good chevrusa who would sit with me and painstakingly go over the day’s learning.”

“But the strain of struggling to read lips for four hours of study took its toll,” he says.

Teaching for two years at Yeshivat Nefesh David, a Toronto program for deaf boys ages 13-18, Tolidano began to wonder what happens to many of these boys after high school, asking himself questions such as, “Is that the end of their learning? And what about the thousands of deaf Jewish men who never even had that chance to learn in ways we can understand?”

The new kollel, the first one designed specifically for deaf men, is named after his grandfather, Rav Nissim Tolidano, who himself opened a yeshiva forSephardic Jews, Sherit Yosef, in 1963 in Be’er Ya’akov—a town near Ramleh, perched between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. After inspiring thousands of students over a span of 50 years, the Rav died this past June.

“Every step of the way I have felt my grandfather’s blessing and his pride,” Tolidano says.

Rabbi Fetehi, whose own (hearing) students learn more noisily the a room over from Tolidano’s, says the Tolidano family rabbis “are a chain that never broke.”

“[Yosef] is descended from leaders and he is a leader,” Fetehi says. “It’s something I could see as soon as we met. I knew he is the kind of person who can pull a group together coming from such different learning backgrounds and with such different communications skills. Now they come to this place and begin to feel they are worthwhile, that after so long they know they can learn as well as anyone.”

Hillel Inglis is one young man who had the chance to learn as a teen in the Toronto program and then enrolled in a hearing yeshiva. But, until Ma’aseh Nissim opened, the London native never thought he’d have a chance to continue his education—his way. “When you can’t hear everything you lose the points made,” says the 25-year-old with hearing aids in both ears.

“Yosef switches our chevrusas every two hours, so we can help each other learn better,” he says. “Because, even though these guys are very smart, most never had a chance to develop the skills for Gemara study. Now all of a sudden it’s coming together.”

“We’re like a family,” adds Mordechai Weisman, a 25-year-old Israeli with honey brown peyos (sideburns) and a ready laugh.

“My wife tells me I have more self confidence now, since I can actually use my mind,” Weisman says. “It’s like my full potential is now mine to use.”

It’s that potential that continues to excite his teacher. In Tolidano’s sights is a vision of many deaf men from both secular and religious backgrounds learning together. He travels both inside and outside of Israel to raise funds. Tuiton is free, since Fetehi donates the space for the kollel. Each student receives a monthly $400 stipend to help defray living costs.

Tolidano has a clear long-term vision for where he wants the kollel to go. 

“To get to the point where every deaf Jewish man can see himself as equal to every other learner, as truly comfortable and confident, as being able to ask the questions he could never ask before in a safe place, there is a lot of work to do,” he says.

For more information on the kollel, contact Tolidano at joetolidano@gmail.com.

Posted on December 30, 2012 and filed under Features, Israel.