The History of the JDC
The Jewish Deaf Congress, Inc. was established as the National Congress of Jewish Deaf in New York City in July, 1956, when Jewish deaf people across America realized a need for an organization to bring together individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing and provide opportunities to study and learn about Judaism in an educational and religious environment. Leaders in the fields of education, finance, social work, and law supported this effort. Deaf people who were instrumental in the founding included Leonard Warshawsky of Chicago, Alexander Fleischman of Washington, DC, and Bernard Teitelbaum of Pittsburgh. Supporters who were hearing included Judge Montefiore Levy, Simon Osserman and Tanya Nash of New York, Rose Olanoff of Philadelphia, Helen Coblenzer of Baltimore, and Dr. Irving Fusfeld of Washington, DC.
With Philip Hanover as chair and Harold Steinman as secretary, a committee was formed to make arrangements for a national convention. The work was financed by Anna Plapinger, who had great faith in the undertaking. The committee decided on a name: The National Convention of Jewish Deaf, and selected Hotel Manhattan Towers as the site of the gathering with the Hebrew Association of the Deaf of New York as the host.
Much to the committee’s surprise and delight, people from all parts of the United States, Canada, and Israel attended the panel meeting on the first night and the convention events that followed. The panel involved the audience in exploring the various facets of Jewish life and heritage. The Sabbath service was conducted in sign language; for many deaf and hard of hearing people, this was their first time to experience a service conducted in American Sign Language.
The long-cherished hope for a national organization crystallized during the first meeting when a permanent governing body was appointed. The Hebrew Association of the Deaf of Philadelphia hosted the second gathering in 1958. During the intervening two years, a constitution and by-laws were drafted.
Atlantic City, New Jersey, was the locale of the 1958 convention. The constitution and by-laws were ratified and a new name, The National Congress of Jewish Deaf, was adopted. A committee under the leadership of Harold Steinman was created to investigate ways and means whereby a deaf person could be admitted to rabbinical studies. The NCJD Quarterly was established as the official NCJD publication with Alexander Fleischman as its first editor. At the 1960 convention in Chicago, the Endowment Fund was created for the purpose of assisting rabbinical candidates in the pursuit of their studies to become spiritual leaders among Jewish people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
The Rabbinical Committee reported that a graduate of Gallaudet College, Alton Silver of Texas, influenced by the growing interest in Judaism among deaf persons, had enrolled for rabbinical studies at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.
The 1962 convention was held in Washington, DC, under the sponsorship of the Jewish Deaf Society of Baltimore. This successful convention featured Student Rabbi Anton Silver conducting his first Sabbath services for convention goers, and a program for teenagers was initiated. President Fleischman appointed Alton Silver as Chaplain of the NCJD.
The 1964 Convention returned to New York City, birthplace of the NCJD, for a convention held in conjunction with the World’s Fair. Most significant was the presence of Alton Silver, who assisted Dr. David J. Seligson of Central Synagogue in conducting an inspiring Sabbath service. The NCJD affiliated with the Council of Organizations Serving the Deaf (COSD).
Joining deaf and hard of hearing Jewish individuals at the 1966 Cleveland Convention were a sizable number of hearing persons. Plans were outlined for the NCJD to conduct a workshop on “Orientation of Jewish Religious and Community Leaders on Deafness and Vocational Rehabilitation. In the two years prior to this convention, founding President Philip Hanover and Student Rabbi Anton Silver had passed away; their absence was deeply felt. President Fleischman extended to all rabbis working with deaf persons the title of “honorary chaplain.”
NCJD went west and convened in Los Angeles in 1968. The highlight of this convention was worshipping in the first synagogue to be owned fully operated by Jewish deaf and hard of hearing people. Creating a prayer book and invoking the Conventor Plan for the 1972 Convention were the highlights of the Convention.
In 1970, Chicago again greeted convention goers. Student Rabbi Douglas Goldhammer of Hebrew Union College led the worship services. The newly edited prayer books were used on Shabbat. The youth held a conclave, resulting in the formation of a youth committee.
The Convention Plan was invoked for the first time when NCJD met at Atlantic City in 1972. Two visitors from Israel attended, and the convention went ‘Israel-minded.’ A contribution was made to the Helen Keller Home Building Fund. In addition, NCJD explored the possibility of sending young people to a kibbutz in Israel and selected President Fleischman to represent the NCJD at the Fourth Conference on Deafness of the World Federation of the Deaf held in Tel Aviv.
The 1974 Convention in New York City featured a successful Las Vegas Night that was conducted by the officers of the NCJD, with the proceeds going to going to the Endowment Fund.
The American Bicentennial year found NCJD in historic Boston for its 11th Biennial Convention. Student Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb conducted the Tisha B’ Av Service during the convention. The NCJD sponsored a tour of Israel during the summer of 1977 in conjunction with efforts to form an international organization of deaf people.
There in Israel the World Organization of the Jewish Deaf (WOJD) was formed with Alexander Fleischman elected as the first president. Through the kindness of Anna Plapinger, the Anna and Henry Plapinger Fund was established to provide recognition for deserving individuals as well as to support the NCJD Endowment Fund.
At the successful 1978 convention in Beverly Hills, California, the Plapinger Award was given for the first time to honor deaf and hard of hearing Jewish leaders. A history-making first formal NCJD Board meeting was held between conventions in November 1979.
In 1980 NCJD had a “vacation-convention” at the Catskill’s Granite Hotel and Country Club in Kerhonkson, New York. An impressive workshop on Hebrew relics was held. A new project on collecting information about Jewish Deaf Personalities was initialed.
In 1982, the Convention was held at the Washington Hilton Hotel in the nation’s capital. A power failure occurred but did not hamper the spirit of those attending. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein gave a stimulating sermon, “Dreams for a Future Deaf Rabbi.” An informal youth workshop was initialed.
NCJD members went back to the Borscht-Belt of Brown’s Hotel in Loch Sheldrake, New York, in 1984. Five rabbis serving the Jewish deaf community attended this convention. The program included a rabbinical round table discussion on topics related to deafness. The NCJD Hall of Fame was initialed and the NCJD Archives were established.
In 1986, the Holiday Inn in historic Philadelphia was the convention site. Interpreters and parents were actively vocal at sessions, and the first of the organization’s Special Interest Groups (SIG) was formed. The Celia Warshawsky Award to honor young adults was established.
Signs of Judaism, authored by Adele K. Shuart went on sale. This 176-page book of illustrations and explanations, plus a brief history of Judaism and deafness, was written to provide assistance to rabbis, educators, interpreters, and parents of deaf children as well as deaf adults themselves.
The Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, California, attracted members in 1988. Host Temple Beth Solomon was fortunate to receive a sizable grant to cover most of the convention expenses. The convention program highlighted several workshops and an entertaining Saturday evening program with all deaf professional actors and actresses. The Jewish Deaf Trivia by Sharon Ann Dror and Jewish Cook Book by Karen Rothschild and Rita Florsheim were sold. A complete Proceedings of the Convention was published.
With the inspiring backdrop of New York City’s skyline, the Statue of Liberty, and the Meadowlands sports complex, host Brooklyn Hebrew Society of the Deaf featured the first Orthodox-oriented convention in 1992. With the success of two Shabbatons in 1991, the NCJD board endorsed the continuity of this program.
For the first time, NCJD members traveled outside the United States for a convention in 1994, with the Toronto Jewish Association of the Deaf hosting the 19th Biennial Convention. Members of Chicago’s Congregation Bene Shalom planned the Convention in 1996 and gave it an international theme, Chicago 1996: Where East Meets West.
In 1990, the Board of the National Congress of Jewish Deaf had begun exploring ways to secure nonprofit status for the organization. This exploration led to the realization that the most effective way to achieve this goal would be to start a new organization. In 1992, the board and the members of the National Congress of Jewish Deaf decided that the name for the new organization would be the Jewish Deaf Congress, Inc. Shortly thereafter, the Jewish Deaf Congress, Inc. was created and incorporated under the Nonprofit Corporation Laws of Wyoming. The elected officers of the NCJD became the first officers of the Jewish Deaf Congress, Inc. For six years the NCJD and JDC existed side-by-side, working together to further the missions of both organizations, which were remarkably similar: to provide religious, educational, and cultural experiences for persons who are deaf or hard of hearing.
During the Chicago Convention of 1996, the membership of the NCJD voted to officially recognize the Jewish Deaf Congress, Inc., as the organization serving persons who are Jewish and deaf or hard of hearing. While the by laws of the two organizations were different, and although the NCJD no longer existed in name, the spirit of the NCJD founders and its heritage of forty years were subsumed into the Jewish Deaf Congress, Inc.
In 1997, the Board of the Jewish Deaf Congress began soliciting ideas for a logo that would reflect the organization and the spirit of Judaism. The Board elected to change the name of the biennial meeting from Convention to Conference. In addition, the
Board agreed to change the name of the biennial meeting from Convention to Conference. In addition, the Board agreed to change the biennial meetings to odd-number years.
As the torch passed, the organization noted the 4th anniversary of the JDC Quarterly with the first JDC gathering in a conference sponsored by Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in 1998, the Temple’s fourth effort to bring together the member of the organization and recreate its spirit in a five-day conference, celebrating its achievement and recognizing the people. The process of innovation continued where the spirit of the JDC past, present and future merged into a perpetual dance, reaffirming the continuity of the organization and our faith.
JDC, Inc., serves Jewish deaf and hard of hearing persons all over the world through our biennial conferences. We encourage in our community pluralism – whether Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, or Orthodox – we are all an essential part of Klal Yisrael – the worldwide community of Jewry.