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Tower of David Museum offers first Selichot tours for the deaf

Visitors to Jerusalem's Old City this High Holiday season can take a tour conducted entirely via sign language.

A Tower of David Museum guide conducts a tour of the Old City via sign language, Sept. 10, 2023. Credit: Tower of David Museum.
A Tower of David Museum guide conducts a tour of the Old City via sign language, Sept. 10, 2023. Credit: Tower of David Museum.

Jerusalem’s Tower of David Museum this week ran its first guided Selichot tour for the deaf and hearing impaired.

Selichot, communal prayers for divine forgiveness, are traditionally recited by Jews during the Jewish High Holidays and on fast days. From the 1st of the Hebrew month of Elul to Erev Yom Kippur, over 100,000 visitors typically arrive at Jaffa Gate to experience the Selichot prayers in the Old City.

Tours are run by travel agents, synagogues, communities, museums, guides and organizations—some with musical accompaniment, some with the blowing of a shofar. The general atmosphere can be quite noisy. But not for everyone. 

Every year, the Tower of David Museum, too, runs Selichot tours for the general public, that start at the museum and end at the Western Wall in time for the Selichot prayers. On Sunday, however, the museum offered its first tour conducted via sign language. 

Yonatan Shayovitz started working at the museum last June as a guide for the deaf community. With him are two other guides who speak Israeli, American and International sign language.

“Tonight was amazing,” said Nessya Eliyahu of Moshav Avital, who participated in the first Selichot tour, which was led by Shayovitz. “The tour guide was signing to me. I didn’t have to have split vision and follow both a guide and a translator, but I could follow Yonatan’s every word and every movement. It’s different when it is a deaf person communicating with a deaf person.”

The museum has previously run tours for the blind and sight impaired and created an enrichment course to train guides to work with people with low cognitive function. Its Night Experiences is accessible to the blind and sight impaired through audio description and cordless headphones, and the museum has held fun activities for adults and families with children with special needs.

Additionally, the Tower of David established the Jerusalem Forum for Accessibility and Inclusion in Museums, which under the Israel Council of Museums has become a nationwide forum.

Coincidentally, September is International Month of the Deaf, and this year International Day of the Deaf falls on Erev Yom Kippur.

“Every time the museum takes a new step in the world of accessibility and inclusion, we see with our own eyes how worlds of culture and history open up for visitors,” said Reut Kozak, head of accessibility and inclusion at the museum. “Being able to open up our doors to the deaf and hearing impaired community, with guides who speak in sign language, is an exciting new start for the new Year. And no better a place to start than with Selichot tours ahead of Yom Kippur!”

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