Chabad Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff has a full plate right now. As one of just a handful of Deaf rabbis in the world, the 23-year-old plans to shuttle between three East Coast cities, where he will be hosting hundreds of Deaf and hard-of-hearing Jews at Chanukah celebrations tailor-made for their community’s culture and needs.

The biggest celebration is set to take place in Lower Manhattan at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, where Soudakoff expects approximately 200 people. The party will include a grand menorah-lighting ceremony with a 9-foot-high menorah designed by Ellen Mansfield, a Deaf Jewish artist from Frederick, Md.; a guest appearance by Douglas Ridloff, an American Sign Language (ASL) actor; and, of course, Torah thoughts from Soudakoff himself.

The other two events will be held in Rochester, N.Y., and in Washington D.C.—each of which is home to a university for Deaf and hard-of-hearing people, in addition to a sizeable Deaf community.

Soudakoff even has his own logo to go with the celebrations: the ASL word for Chanukah, formed by two raised hands each with four fingers extended upward, topped by eight flames.

Last year’s first-ever public menorah-lighting ceremony on the campus of Gallaudet University—the Washington, D.C.-based liberal-arts university where all programs and services are geared for Deafand hard-of-hearing students—was something that Steve Brenner, past president of the Washington Society of Jewish Deaf, calls “one of the most unique happening among the Jewish Deaf community in the Greater Washington area for the past 50 years.”

In the presence of approximately 100 students, faculty and community members, Soudakoff explained that the Jewish struggle in the Chanukah story has many parallels to the Deaf story. “The Jews were a minority,” he signed from the podium, “battling against a foreign culture that attempted to assimilate them. And yet, in the end, the Jews won the battle to retain their Jewish identity.

Deaf people can relate to this, as we have struggled for years to strike the right balance between functioning in a hearing world, while being comfortable and even proud of our Deaf identity. Jewish Deaf people, of course, are a minority among minorities. And yet, we are here today, celebrating our Jewish Deaf identity as never before.”

An artist commissioned by Soudakoff prepares a Deaf-themed menorah.
An artist commissioned by Soudakoff prepares a Deaf-themed menorah.

He was assisted in the lighting of a 9-foot-high menorah by Gallaudet University President Dr. Alan Hurwitz and Provost Dr. Steve Weiner.

“It was thrilling for the audience to recite our Chanukah blessings in ASL with Rabbi Soudakoff,” says Brenner.

Like last year’s Washington event, the New York City celebration will be streamed live over the Internet with simultaneous voice translation and captions.

A Unique Culture

The invitation to the New York Chanukah event features the Statue of Liberty signing "Chanukah" in ASL, with each finger topped by an orange flame.
The invitation to the New York Chanukah event features the Statue of Liberty signing "Chanukah" in ASL, with each finger topped by an orange flame.

Although his message is often similar to that of his hearing counterparts, Soudakoff notes that being Deaf gives him an important “in” with the Deaf community, which has a unique culture that is often misunderstood or overlooked by others. Through his organization—The Jewish Deaf Foundation—he has founded an overnight camp for Jewish Deaf boys; led a group of Deaf young adults from Russia on a trip to Israel; and hosts regular online Torah classes in ASL on the Jewish Deaf Multimedia website and on Chabad.org’s Jewish.TV.

And he says there’s always more to do.

As Brenner quips: “We need 20 clones of Rabbi Soudakoff to send to many big cities where there are large groups of Deaf people.”

But for the short term, Chanukah calls. The rabbi has menorahs to assemble, reservations to tally, speeches to prepare, and, of course, lots of latkes and doughnuts to order.

For more information, visit the Jewish Deaf Foundation website or email rabbi@jewishdeaffoundation.org.

The logo for the celebrations can be seen on this yarmulke: the ASL word for "Chanukah," formed by two raised hands each with four fingers extended upward, topped by eight flames.
The logo for the celebrations can be seen on this yarmulke: the ASL word for "Chanukah," formed by two raised hands each with four fingers extended upward, topped by eight flames.
Gallaudet University President Dr. Alan Hurwitz assisted in lighting the 9-foot-tall menorah last year for the Deaf community.
Gallaudet University President Dr. Alan Hurwitz assisted in lighting the 9-foot-tall menorah last year for the Deaf community.
Provost Dr. Steve Weiner also participated in the memorable ceremony last year.
Provost Dr. Steve Weiner also participated in the memorable ceremony last year.
An invitation to Soudakoff's Chanukah event for the Deaf this month in Rochester, N.Y.
An invitation to Soudakoff's Chanukah event for the Deaf this month in Rochester, N.Y.