Until the television exploded in their living room, the Levi family (not their real name) of Gilo had no idea that they were living in a war zone. While their neighbors scrambled to take cover at the first sound of gunfire, the Levis continued to sit in their living room, facing the Palestinian village of Beit Jala, oblivious to the danger. Why? Because the Levis - the father, the mother and the children – are deaf.
"All of a sudden, there was a flash of light and the television exploded," recalls Yaakov Levi. "My daughter went into hysteria and fell on the floor. My wife, who was in another room at the time, was unaware that anything had happened and continued to walk around freely. I thought there were terrorists in our neighborhood. I was terrified and said Shema Yisrael. Later, our neighbors told us that there was shooting from Beit Jala. We were so afraid that we didn't go out for a month."
"The past year has been a very difficult one for the deaf, especially in Jerusalem," says Naomi Rosenstein, director of the Yeshiva University Israel Alumni's (YUIA) Jewish Heritage Program for the Hearing-Impaired. "Our work with the deaf community has taken on added importance in enabling these people to function in times of terror and uncertainty."
Supported by allocations from the Jewish Agency for Israel, the YUIA Program for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired provides essential practical and psychological support in these trying times.
This has included installation of special flashing lights that warn of gunfire in the homes of hearing impaired residents of Gilo, vibrating beepers that display text messages with instructions on what to do in an emergency, and video telephones which enable the hearing impaired to "see" the person calling and communicate in sign language. The video telephones were given to the hearing impaired families in Gilo. In addition, there is a video telephone in the local club for the hearing impaired. The families can thus communicate with one another in real time as well as with the club for information and updates.
"When there is a terror attack, people want information," states YUIA educational coordinator Rabbi Chanoch Yeris. "They want to know what happened and where. The deaf person sees people in states of hysteria or running in the streets and he or she doesn't know what is going on, doesn't know where family members are and has no way to contact anyone. We provide them with the tools to get vital information in real time."
In addition, the YUIA sponsored a two-part family workshop on dealing with stress for the hearing impaired. Yeris, who is also a psychologist, led the workshop that offered advice on how to cope with emotional stress as well as practical solutions to dealing with danger.
"We had children showing us how they hid under their beds in fear," Yeris explains. "Parents told us they were afraid to go out and especially afraid to let their children out to play. Our support helped these families overcome their fears and learn to go about their normal lives. This is very important. People have to continue with their daily routine as much as possible otherwise they will be living in constant fear. Our programs literally are lifesavers for the deaf and hearing impaired. Someone who locks himself and his family in the house is no longer living."
YUIA was founded in 1986 to be a positive force for the advancement of mutual respect and tolerance. In 1990, YUIA established a sign language course for practicing rabbis at the Caroline and Joseph Gruss Institute in Jerusalem.
As a result of this course, these rabbis started to make their way into clubs, schools and social settings for the hearing impaired to teach the Jewish heritage. In addition, these rabbis began to supervise life passage ceremonies for the community such as weddings, brits and bar/bat mitzvahs.
From this modest beginning the program grew. Today, it includes Jewish heritage programs; Hebrew sign and language instruction to deaf new immigrants from the FSU; free sign language courses for educators, community leaders and rabbis; family programming; educational material for the deaf; a Hebrew website; life cycle and family counseling; computer courses for the deaf at Bar-Ilan University and an annual Shabbaton weekend retreat.
Boaz Aharon is a member of one of 10 deaf and hearing-impaired families in Gilo that benefit from the special devices provided by the YUIA. "My wife is also deaf," he relates. "We have five hearing, small children. One day, I was on the bus going to work when suddenly I noticed that the other passengers were very agitated and were all calling on their cell phones. I had no idea what had happened. I was too embarrassed to ask anyone. I only knew that my children were on their way to school. I was worried sick. It wasn't until I got to work that someone told me there had been a car bomb near my home. I then went immediately to the club for the deaf and hearing impaired. The social worker phoned the schools my children attend to verify that they were all right and she sent a fax to my wife at home. Today, I have a special beeper to help me find out what is happening and keep in touch. I also have the special video telephone in my home. The two have really been a relief and a godsend for our family."
We believe in empowerment," Rosenstein says. "The more information the deaf have, the more control they have of the situation and the better they are able to cope. In this world, there is macro-Zionism – the rescue and immigration of Jewish communities – that rightfully captures the headlines. But there is also micro-Zionism, the smaller programs which make life more worthwhile. Our program is an example of micro-Zionism."