Manchester Reform's sign language Shabbat service is a breakthrough for deaf congregants

Shul's pioneering service will also be available online


Profoundly deaf from birth, Neil Kostick, 63, has been attending Manchester Reform Synagogue services for 26 years without being able to follow a single word. Until now.

This weekend, the shul is hosting its first British Sign Language Shabbat morning service, also available online, with further multi-access sessions planned for June, August, September and November.

Manchester Reform’s Rabbi Robyn Ashworth-Steen has been determined to find a way to meaningfully include Mr Kostick and others like him. And it was the change in worship enforced by the pandemic that helped deliver a solution.

The Zoom broadcasts which enabled shulgoers to join services from their living rooms sometimes displayed siddur and chumash pages on screen.

So with the support of an interpreter, special services could be relayed to a more inclusive audience.

With an interpreter among the Manchester Reform congregation, ongoing trials have led to a tailored service that is now ready to go live.

“I’ve been praying for this,” Mr Kostick told the JC through his interpreter.

“Judaism is important in my life but the services have always been impenetrable. My mum explained to me all about the festivals and traditions when I was a child. Only now does it become real.”

The retired printer feels the deaf community has been “unintentionally excluded from services. [Now] suddenly we can understand and follow.

“I want so much for others to join in and experience it all. It has been a life-changing experience for me and to have an aliyah in front of the Torah without having to be prompted is just wonderful.”

Rabbi Ashworth-Steen — who been taking lessons in British Sign Language to improve her understanding — is delighted her shul can offer “a service in keeping with BSL that Neil and others can understand in order to make Judaism as inclusive as possible.

“Capital D deaf is the category we’re talking about. They can’t hear anything. So a hearing loop is not going to help them. BSL is a language with unique grammar, syntax and rhythm.

“I was angry that I couldn’t make the service more accessible. Neil has come to shul here since I was a kid but he doesn’t know what is happening. As a rabbi, I had another deaf person who wanted to convert and was frustrated that there was so little that I could do.

“We are having to invent signs. For instance, rabbi is a beard. As far as I’m aware, there has never been a sustained service for deaf members involving the whole community.”

The initiative has been welcomed by Jewish Deaf Association chief executive Sue Cipin, who said it was working with rabbis on a campaign of inclusion.

“The biggest problem we face is the lack of interpreters. We only have perhaps four or five in the country so we do need to train others. But the beauty is that by using Zoom, you can be anywhere in the UK and tune in.

“We are even working on signing the songs. We want to introduce the system for weddings and the whole range of everyday Jewish life.”

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