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Bris bridges two communities — deaf and Jewish

by ellen simon pifer, j. correspondent

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The sanctuary at Congregation Beth Torah in Fremont was crowded with people for little Braxton’s brit milah on June 22, but the noise level before the ceremony was surprisingly low.

That’s because nearly half of the people in attendance — including Braxton’s parents — were chatting animatedly but silently in American Sign Language.

Marissa Cohen and Joey Mignone, the new parents, met more than seven years ago when they were both high school students at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont. Now they were getting ready for the bris of their first child, Braxton Dov Lev Cohen Mignone, just 8 days old.

“I’m nervous,” Marissa Cohen said through an interpreter, her mother, Cheryl Cohen.

Rabbi Moshe Trager, the mohel, holds baby Braxton as guests and sign language interpreter Shelley Lawrence look on.   photo/ellen simon pifer
Rabbi Moshe Trager, the mohel, holds baby Braxton as guests and sign language interpreter Shelley Lawrence look on. photo/ellen simon pifer
“Don’t be nervous,” said Rabbi Moshe Trager, the mohel who would perform the procedure. “I just need to check to make sure it’s a boy.”

Cheryl translated the joke into sign language, and Marissa smiled and relaxed back into the sofa, her son sleeping peacefully in her arms.

A brit milah ceremony is always cause for a new mother’s nervousness — and a community’s celebration — but as Rabbi Avi Schulman of Beth Torah expressed in his welcoming comments, this bris was unusually special.

“Braxton represents a bridge on so many levels, between parents, grandparents, the two synagogues the [Cohen] family belongs to — Congregations Beth Emek [in Pleasanton] and Beth Torah — and the five rabbis here today,” Schulman said.

The one bridge the rabbi didn’t mention was the bridge between the hearing and deaf communities, which seemed so evident in the sanctuary. The deaf community was seated mostly on one side of the room, in close proximity to the interpreter, and the hearing community was seated on the other side. Braxton and his immediate family were seated in the center section, providing another symbolic bridge.

Of the approximately 200 families at Beth Torah, three have members who are deaf. The temple reaches out to Jewish families with deaf family members, in part because of its proximity to the California School for the Deaf. The temple has all High Holy Day, family and children’s services interpreted for the deaf.

“The fact that we have a number of adults and teenagers in our congregation who are fluent in American Sign Language allows us to make a deeper connection with Jews in our community who are deaf,” Schulman said.

The brit milah ceremony began with Trager explaining the meaning behind the ritual. The interpreter, Shelley Lawrence, stood to his side and translated his words into ASL, which wasn’t always easy considering she doesn’t know Hebrew. She, rather than one of Beth Torah’s regular interpreters, was doing the ceremony because she is a family friend.

When Hebrew words, phrases and prayers needed to be translated into sign language, Marissa’s sister, Ashley, and her brothers, Jamie and Joshua, were happy to help out. They, as well as their parents, all are fluent in ASL.

According to Cheryl Cohen, fewer than 10 percent of families with a deaf child are fluent in ASL. This can be isolating for deaf children, making it hard for them to connect with even their own family members, but Cohen is proud that her entire family is fluent.

Marissa Cohen, Joey Mignone and Braxton
Marissa Cohen, Joey Mignone and Braxton
“American Sign Language is my first language. I learned it before I learned English,” 17-year-old Ashley said.

When family and friends sang “Hine Ma Tov,” the Cohen siblings signed enthusiastically to the music, giving each word or concept a smooth and rhythmic sign with their hands and facial expressions.

“I was amazed at how even though I don’t know sign language, I could clearly feel the warmth, love, pride and joy in the room,” Trager said. “I hope Braxton’s life will be all about bringing people together like he did today.”

A first-time mom, Marissa Cohen, 27, is used to being a pioneer. In 1996, she was featured in j. for signing her Torah portion and becoming the first deaf teen in the Bay Area to have a bat mitzvah. Back then, she dreamed of becoming a movie star. Now a teaching assistant at the California School for the Deaf, her dreams are more modest. She just wants her newborn son to be happy and healthy — as does Mignone.

“Most importantly, we were hoping for a healthy baby,” the baby’s father said through the interpreter.

Mignone works for a construction company and is an assistant football coach at CSD. An accomplished high school athlete and a diehard sports fan, Mignone said he’d love his son to grow up to be a professional athlete, but admitted many things are “easier when you can hear.”

Though baby Braxton failed his initial hearing test and might be deaf like his parents, the results are not yet conclusive.

After the ceremony, Braxton’s grandfather, Jeffrey Cohen, put a different spin on the test results, proclaiming to the members of the deaf community present that Braxton had “passed his first deaf test.” Welcoming a new member into their community, many of the deaf people in attendance broke into a round of “deaf applause” — holding their hands in the air and twisting them a couple of times.

The bris was the first of many celebrations the Cohen and Mignone families are looking forward to celebrating together. Although the Mignones are not Jewish, Braxton will be raised Jewish, Marissa noted.

“This was a very meaningful ceremony for us,” she added. “We are looking forward to making many new memories with our son, and sharing with him the two special communities that shaped who I am today — the Jewish community and the deaf community.”


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