Skokie Synagogue For The Deaf Hits Hard Times

Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer founded Bene Shalom in Skokie 47 years ago.
Photo credit Photo courtesy of Ken Clinkman

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer founded Bene Shalom in Skokie 47 years ago. As a Rabbinical student, he learned sign language on his own. He soon decided to make it a permanent part of his service.

"I lived with the deaf community. I learned their language and then I learned that the status of the deaf and disabled in Jewish law, that rabbis weren't interested in recruiting deaf people for their communities," he recalled.

"I learned that many deaf Jews were being ignored. I decided to see for myself. I went to school in Cincinnati and met with the leaders of the Chicago Little Deaf Community. I was asked to be their student rabbi and that's how it started. I felt so inspired watching little deaf kids, who couldn't speak, read the Torah in Hebrew using sign language as their instrument."

From there, he built his congregation.

"I knew God was calling me to do this kind of work," he said.

Goldhamer said the Bene Shalom is unique, because they welcome all community members regardless of their religious beliefs or ethnicity.

"They raised about 40 percent of our budget for 40 years, but many of them have passed away. Right now, without the Friends group, I don't see how we can continue without support," Goldhamer said

In order to remain open, Bene Shalom has drastically cut the salaries of its clergy and reduced other expenses. Due to the personal dedication and generosity of their rabbis and small staff, they remain open. But expenses like sign language interpreters, police security, water, phone, and other things continue to add up.

Goldhamer said the concept is catching on in other synagogues.

"I felt so inspired when I spoke in sign language the ancient language of Hebrew and Aramaic to my deaf parishioners," he said.

Bene Shalom has set up a GoFundMe page. Rabbi Goldhamer hopes to raise $40,000.