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‘Be kind’: Rabbi Doug Goldhamer, founder of first synagogue for the deaf, dies at 76

When Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer arrived in Chicago from Cincinnati in the early 1970s, he found deaf Jews attending church services because they had no synagogue to accommodate their needs or view them as equals.

So in 1973, Goldhamer founded Congregation Bene Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Skokie, Illinois, that interprets all of its services in American Sign Language. In 1992, he created the Hebrew Seminary, the world’s first and still only rabbinic school for the deaf, which has graduated more than 20 rabbis.

“Many rabbis now are knocking down the walls of bigotry,” he told the Forward in a 2021 profile. “Every person whether deaf, blind, African American, Christian, Jew, should be allowed to sit in any pew in a synagogue.”

Rabbi Goldhamer, who died Feb. 3 at age 76 after a brief illness, is the inaugural subject of our new short-form series, “Sign of the Times,” celebrating Jewish role models who practice activism and social justice into their later years. Our production company, Silver Screen Studios, is producing the series in partnership with the Jewish arts-and-culture nonprofit Reboot.

Goldhamer laid out the underlying thesis of his life’s work in the final moments of his eight-minute video episode, titled “Hear, O Israel;” “Be kind, be kind, be kind,” he says aloud and in American Sign Language. “To me that’s the most important activity we can do. ‘Be kind’; if we can learn this and practice that, whoa, that’s powerful!”

Goldhamer, who was born in Montreal, found his spiritual calling in advocating for the deaf community and honoring diversity, equity and inclusion within Judaism. Like so many activists, his work had deeply personal underpinnings.

Thirty days after he was born, Goldhamer suffered a botched radiation treatment for a skin ailment (a disturbingly common practice back in 1946) that left half his body, including his left hand, burned and discolored.

He was often teased about this disfigurement while growing up, which set him on a path of empathy and compassion for those deemed different. He wrote his thesis at Hebrew Union College on disability and the rabbinate. His ability to relate to people who are ostracized from their communities led Goldhamer to found Bene Shalom. Nearly 50 years after its opening with 11 families, the synagogue now serves hundreds, and is often cited as the nation’s only full-service synagogue for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Among its congregants over the years was the family of Marlee Matlin, the Academy Award-winning deaf actress; Goldhamer officiated at her bat mitzvah.

Goldhamer, who held a doctorate in medieval philosophy from the University of Chicago, also lectured widely on Jewish mysticism and philosophy, and was an accomplished painter whose work was featured in several galleries.

Goldhamer authored two books: “Healing With God’s Love: Kabbalah’s Hidden Secrets,” and “This is For Everyone: Universal Principles of Healing Prayer and the Jewish Mystics.”

His wife, Peggy Bagley, announced his death in a Feb. 4 Facebook post.

“Rabbi Shari Chen and I were by his side as the angels gently lifted his soul and carried it to olam haba,” she wrote on Goldhamer’s Facebook page. “He is now singing (slightly off key) with the angels now, and it is up to us to carry on his legacy of kindness here on earth. “So, please smile at a stranger, pet a dog, share your money and remember the tremendous love that he gave us all.”

To witness one of Goldhamer’s services was to experience joy. All of the liturgy and sermons are interpreted in ASL, a visually engaging and inspiring experience, and each service includes clapping, dancing, and singing. And being around Rabbi Goldhamer was uplifting; his life and work embodied the lesson that adversity can be a blessing.

Rabbi Goldhamer’s burned hand, which ostracized him throughout his life, became a tool for spiritual connection, community and creativity through his mastery of sign language coupled with an understanding of marginalized communities.

And kindness was not just a virtue, but a verb, an “action” for Goldhamer.

“Be kind, be kind, be kind,” he’d say. He lived according to the commandment, “love thy neighbor as you love thyself.”

We intend to honor his legacy by practicing kindness in our daily lives. We will mark his birthday, May 1, each year as “Be Kind Day,” and hope others will join us. As the rabbi said: “Wouldn’t that be powerful”

Tiffany Woolf is the CEO of Silver Screen Studios, which she co-founded with Noam Dromi, managing director and executive producer of Reboot Studios. Their series “Sign of the Times” profiles inspiring older Jewish role models. Click here to watch the inaugural episode featuring Rabbi Doug Goldhamer.

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