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Yael Zelinger M.S. '99

For decades, Yael Zelinger M.S. ’99 has worked to make the larger Jewish community accessible and inclusive for Deaf individuals. Zelinger jump-started her professional career by earning a master’s degree in Deaf Education here on the Hill, which led to her joining the staff of Jewish Advocates for Deaf Education in Baltimore.

Headshot of Yael Zelinger in front of a brick wall.

Deaf Education graduate Yael Zelinger '99 lives in Baltimore and currently is preparing for this year's biannual DeafBlind Shabbaton.

From the time she was a teenager in summer camp bonding with Deaf friends, to decades later earning her master’s in Deaf Education and coordinating educational programs in the Jewish Deaf community, Yael Zelinger M.S. ’99 has always strived to support inclusivity.

At the age of 17, Zelinger was first introduced to American Sign Language (ASL) at summer camp through Deaf friends and a fluent member of the camp staff. Eager to connect with her fellow campers, Zelinger learned new signs from the staff member, and even arranged for them to teach her and five friends every Sunday. “It’s such a beautiful, expressive language, and I found it so satisfying to be able to express myself in sign language,” Zelinger says.

Her passion sparked by those experiences, Zelinger knew she eventually wanted a career in Deaf education. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Touro University (formerly Touro College) in New York, then later moved to Baltimore.

She enrolled in sign language courses at the Community College of Baltimore County; then, wanting to earn a master’s degree while staying close to home, she found the best fit for her graduate education in McDaniel’s Deaf Education program.

Zelinger's own determination to learn ASL and pursue a Deaf Education degree have rewarded her with the ability to become “a connector who helps people participate in the broader community,” she says.

Zelinger’s courses in the master’s program were delivered in ASL, and she learned to create and conduct model lessons for her fellow students solely in sign language. As part of the program, Zelinger also interned with the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick, Maryland.

Since graduating from McDaniel, Zelinger has put her Deaf Education degree into action for more than 20 years at Jewish Advocates for Deaf Education (JADE), a program of the Center for Jewish Education, which is an agency of The Associated Jewish Federation of Baltimore. JADE advocates for Deaf inclusion in the Jewish community, and Zelinger has worked to increase funding for interpreters and better access to interpreting resources. Her work with JADE has led to an increase in interpreters in Baltimore schools and synagogues and has spread awareness of inclusivity within the local community.

Zelinger has also coordinated programming including ASL meet-ups, and other community activities. “Some people are learning to sign, and some people just enjoy being with others who have similar life experiences and share the same heritage,” Zelinger says.

For Zelinger, one of the crowning achievements in her career is the biannual DeafBlind Shabbaton. A shabbaton brings together members of the Jewish community for the weekend for a sabbath, a time for religious observance and a break from work. The DeafBlind Shabbaton specifically invites individuals who have both vision and hearing loss to gather and celebrate. For individuals who have no vision or hearing, “we use tactile sign language, which is where the interpreter signs into their hands,” Zelinger says.

Zelinger partnered with Sheryl Cooper, a certified ASL interpreter and consultant, and Leslie Foxman, staff interpreter at Applied Development, to create the DeafBlind Shabbaton in 2009. Since then, attendees travel from Canada, Israel, and across the U.S. to participate in each shabbaton.

Zelinger’s planning involves a massive amount of work including fundraising, program planning, logistics, recruiting, hospitality, transportation, and arranging interim reunions. It involves significant communication and pre-planning, but for Zelinger, the community building and connection that result from the shabbaton is well worth it.

If there’s anything Zelinger has learned from her professional career in Deaf educational services, it’s that learning ASL is “so valuable and so much appreciated,” she says. Her own determination to learn ASL and pursue a Deaf Education degree have rewarded her with the ability to become “a connector who helps people participate in the broader community,” she says.

About Yael

Career: Educational Services

Class: 1999

Program: M.S. in Deaf Education