Skokie Synagogue For The Deaf Hits Hard Times

Lisa Fielding
November 25, 2019 - 1:53 pm
Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer founded Bene Shalom in Skokie 47 years ago.

Photo courtesy of Ken Clinkman

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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.

"We completely accept if someone is a Christian or a Muslim - that doesn't matter. If someone marries a Christian or a Muslim and they are both deaf, they are equally welcome as if they were Jews."

Bene Shalom in Skokie
Photo courtesy of Ken Clickman

A group called "Friends of Bene Shalom" provided most of the temple's financial support.

"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.

"We have enough money to last about three months at this point," Goldhamer said.

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

Bene Shalom serves about 130 families regularly, but attracts people from across the nation, especially for high holidays like Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

Goldhamer said the concept is catching on in other synagogues.

"Because of us, different congregations now have sign language interpreters for the holidays, but the rabbis don't do sign language like we do. We have been able to influence congregations all over the country to do that," he said.

Bene Shalom in Skokie
Photo courtesy of Ken Clickman

The Temple also sponsors a weekly food pantry. Actress and Chicago native Marlee Matlin was bat Mitzvah there.

"We've bar Mitzvah hundreds of boys and girls over the last 40 years. They would have never had bar mitzvah if for not this synagogue. We just want deaf people to know God and to experience the presence of our Lord," Goldhamer said.

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

Goldhamer is 75, but said he has no plans on retiring, but he has 11 men in seminary who are learning the craft and learning sign language to continue the tradition and the unique service.

"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.