Jacob Salem speaks six languages. Yet if he walked into a typical synagogue service in either of the countries where he grew up — America or Israel — he might still get lost.
Salem is deaf. And a synagogue that offers interpretation into sign language so a deaf person can follow can be hard to find, he says.
Salem is out to change that, by influencing the up-and-coming generation of students who might someday become deaf Jewish leaders — students at Gallaudet University, the nation’s preeminent school for deaf students.
“This is a huge issue,” he said. “They lose interest in Jewish life, because there are no interpreters.”
Salem is the first deaf person to ever serve as a director of a Hillel, according to a spokesperson for the worldwide organization that hosts programming for Jews on college campuses.
For Jewish college students at any university, Hillel is very likely their main tie to their religion after they leave their parents’ house and before they join a synagogue or another Jewish community as adults. For students at Gallaudet, Hillel might be even more influential in helping them connect to Judaism in a way they never could anywhere else. As the new director of Gallaudet Hillel, Salem is trying to make those connections possible.
“I can see they’re Jewish. I have Jewish radar,” he joked. The students whom he takes under his wing — about 45 active Hillel participants and growing — sometimes tell him that they grew up with a strong connection to their religion, but others felt left out or simply less informed than they’d like to be.
Salem, who knows English, Hebrew, American Sign Language and Israeli Sign Language plus a healthy dose of Latin and Spanish, can fill in the gaps, especially for those who grew up at synagogue Hebrew schools that didn’t provide the resources to teach deaf kids.
“He is extremely knowledgeable about Judaism, and helps me broaden my knowledge base,” graduate student Lena Jenny wrote in an email. “From spending time with him and Gallaudet Hillel, I feel more prepared to see eye to eye with a more rich spectrum of Jews, especially Deaf Jews.”
Jenny, who grew up in a Reform synagogue, said that since Salem encouraged her to come to Hillel, she has met two of her closest new friends there. “I also feel part of a community that feels like home; during fasts I fast with people instead of alone,” she wrote.
In his first semester as the director of Hillel at Gallaudet, Salem has worked on drumming up a budget for a weekly ASL Shabbat dinner, bringing in speakers who are deaf and involved in Jewish life, and teaching some Israeli Sign Language to curious students. “I really enjoy seeing how they find Jewish life more inspiring,” he said.
Salem, 25, is also a student at Gallaudet himself, getting a master’s degree in public administration. As he walks through the student center, pointing out spaces that the architect designed so sign language speakers would have maximum visibility to carry on conversations, he grins and repeats a truism about deaf culture: If you get into a conversation in sign language, you’re in for a long conversation. Very long. Sometimes hours and hours of uninterrupted talk, hands flying without end.
The reason, he says as his face turns more serious, is that so many deaf people spend their childhoods feeling isolated, unable to communicate easily with anyone around them. When they get to Gallaudet, where banners on campus accurately proclaim, “There is no other place like this in the world,” they luxuriate in the availability of easy sign language conversations everywhere they turn.
Salem’s Hillel students call him on FaceTime — so they can see each other sign — to ask him every day to get lunch, to get coffee, to give them advice about their schoolwork. They talk and talk and talk.
Salem knows how they feel, especially when it comes to learning about Judaism. He grew up lip-reading the Hebrew words of synagogue services, which made it hard for him to feel connected. Then as an undergraduate at the University of Central Florida, he saw his Jewish friends going on Birthright trips to Israel, and he wanted to go.
Gallaudet, he found out, offered a sign language Birthright trip. He signed up to go along. Then he went a second time, as a staff member, and met Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff, one of just a handful of deaf rabbis in the world.
He thought about everything he hadn’t understood, reading lips in synagogue as a child. “It wasn’t as powerful,” he said, “as sitting down with a deaf rabbi and asking a thousand zillion questions. And he had all the answers.”
It was a friend he met on that trip to Israel who eventually suggested he apply to the director position at Gallaudet Hillel. Now, he strives to be that link to the Jewish community for the next deaf young adult who comes into his office.
He’s starting to talk to D.C. synagogues from each major denomination about offering more services with sign language interpreters. If they provide the accommodations, he’ll come up with the transportation budget so interested Gallaudet students can travel for free to services on Friday nights.
Someday, those students will be at the forefront of American Judaism’s newest, most inclusive chapter, he hopes.
“I can see them being leaders,” he said.
“As rabbis,” he said. And why not even more? “As senators. As presidents.”