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The Taglit-Birthright Israel program brings together Jewish people from two worlds

For the ninth year, Gallaudet students have helped to add yet another element to this learning experience. In addition to exposing young American Jews to the Israeli community, the American Sign Language/spoken English trip in June made it possible for 40 deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing participants to share their respective cultures and experiences — both among themselves and with their Israeli peers.

Jewish college students across the country can take advantage of the program’s free 10-day trips, but only the students on this particular trip had the opportunity to communicate in multiple visual and spoken languages.

“Hillel goes to great lengths to make the trip fully accessible to deaf and hard of hearing participants, who might not have been fully included in Jewish life growing up because of communication barriers, or who simply want to know more about their heritage,” said Paula Tucker, director of Gallaudet Hillel.

Gallaudet Hillel is the organization for Jewish life on campus. Each year, Tucker helps to select applicants and coordinate logistics stateside. Hillel selected staff members who were fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) and two ASL/English interpreters.

“Without the ASL component, we wouldn’t have the 100 percent full understanding of what this trip was all about,” said undergraduate Carrie St. Cyr. With full understanding came a realization for St. Cyr: She was not alone.

St. Cyr is moved by freedom of self in Israel

Through her travels in Europe, Mexico, and even the United States, she was always aware of being part of a religious minority.

“In Israel, I felt so completely me and had nothing to hide,” she said. St. Cyr was joined by her older brother, Andrew, who is also deaf. This made the trip even more significant for her.

This year, the trip took even more dedication due to a bleak financial landscape. While Hillel had to reduce the overall number of participants nationwide, the organization gave Gallaudet the green light to send students on the bilingual trip. The number of deaf and hard of hearing students from the University and several other schools remained at 20, complemented by an equal number of hearing students.

The students get a sample of life and culture in Israel

The nine Gallaudet students got a diverse sampling of the people, culture, and community of Israel. Hiking in the Golan region and swimming in the Dead Sea took them outdoors, while interactions with Israeli soldiers who are deaf and discussions on Jewish identity encouraged them to look within. They also ventured into the Tel Aviv night life and took in a performance by Na Laga’at, a theater company made up of actors who are deaf-blind.

For Adam Brownfeld, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology, the encounter with his Israeli peers was one of the most striking moments. “It had a profound impact on me comparing what it’s like to be deaf in the U.S. and Israel,” Brownfeld said. “It was great to share our experiences.” Meanwhile, the Gallaudet participants could share common experiences of their campus and community back home.

Seeing a new country also had a major impact on Brownfeld, who was enthralled by the denizens of the inhospitable desert regions. “It really opened my eyes to how other people live,” Brownfeld said. I can’t wait to do more travelling internationally in the near future.”

Students returning from a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip have several options for staying in touch with the Jewish community and others who have gone on the trip. The St. Cyrs immediately signed up to volunteer with the Birthright Israel NEXT program for alumni. Carrie St. Cyr also wants to strengthen the Jewish community of Kendall Green. “We want to see a Hillel at Gallaudet where the students feel like a family like we felt in Israel,” she said.

Students interested in participating in the next trip in the summer of 2010 can contact Paula Tucker.

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