Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer, founder of Skokie synagogue for deaf people that welcomed all, dead at 76
Among his students at Congregation Bene Shalom, the Reform Jewish synagogue he established half a century ago, he helped Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin study for her bat mitzvah.
Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer, who founded a synagogue in Skokie for the deaf and a Hebrew seminary to train rabbis to communicate with them, was buried with the little things he used to give away to help others.
At his funeral Monday, he was dressed in his customary tweed suit and saddle shoes. His wife Peggy Bagley tucked $5 in his pocket because he used to pull over his car to give money to people who were down on their luck. There also were some coins — he liked giving those to kids when they beat him at air hockey.
And there was “some cat food and some Milk-Bones,” his wife said, “in case he meets some furry friends along the way.”
Rabbi Goldhamer died of heart failure Feb. 3 at Evanston Hospital. He was 76.
Among his many students at Congregation Bene Shalom, the Reform Jewish synagogue he established half a century ago, was Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin, the Morton Grove native who won “Best Actress” in 1987 for the movie “Children of a Lesser God.” He helped her study for and celebrate her bat mitzvah.
In her 2003 autobiography “I’ll Scream Later,” Matlin wrote that she prepared with Rabbi Goldhamer “for two or three years . . . studying the Torah and working on my speech. I’ll never forget learning about my religious history, but more than that, really connecting to my faith. Understanding that it was a very real part of who I am, beyond the Friday-night shabbat dinners and Hanukkah candles and presents.”
On hearing that he died, Matlin said: “Rabbi Goldhamer helped me realize a full and inclusive experience when it came to my Jewish heritage. His temple was fully integrated, deaf and hearing alike, and it was because of him that I was able to become a bat mitzvah. His passing is a huge loss, but his legacy lives on in every one of us who was able to be in his presence.”
Thanks to him, “All these deaf children had the opportunity to experience the fullness of Jewish life,” said his friend the Rev. Joe Mulcrone, a chaplain for deaf people in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago.
Rabbi Goldhamer, who wasn’t deaf himself, was a student at Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College when he began visiting Chicago to serve deaf members of the Jewish community.
“I saw the Passover seder all conducted in American Sign Language, and I fell in love with the people,” he said in an oral history with Silver Screen Studios. “I thought: This is fantastic. And they began teaching me sign language that night.”
In 1972, when he founded Congregation Bene Shalom with the Hebrew Association for the Deaf, it had only 11 families as members, according to the rabbi — and about $125 in the bank.
He said he wanted deaf Jewish people to feel welcome and included.
“These people have had more in common with deaf Christians,” he said at the time, “than with hearing Jews.”
Bene Shalom remains the “only full-service synagogue serving the deaf Jewish community in the United States,” according to the synagogue’s history.
During services, Rabbi Goldhamer would address his congregants in English, Hebrew and sign language. When the shofar was blown at Rosh Hashanah, deaf worshipers were made part of that experience, feeling the vibrations from the simultaneous striking of a kettle drum.
Deaf people, he once said in a Chicago Sun-Times interview, “hear with their eyes and their hearts.”
Thirty years ago, he established the Hebrew Seminary at the same location to educate rabbis for the deaf and hearing communities. The seminary has prepared rabbis from “Reform to Orthodox and in between,” said Tom Giller, chairman of the seminary’s board. “One of his core values was inclusion and pluralism.”
The rabbi often reached out to make friends with people from other religions.
“He was curious about Islam,” Mulcrone said, “so he took courses on it.”
“He changed my life,” said the Rev. Richard Mercer, associate pastor at Evanston’s Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church.
They met in his early 20s, when he worked on the rabbi’s car. At the time, Mercer said, he felt aimless and depressed and had dabbled in drugs. The rabbi prayed with him, encouraged him and gave Mercer the money to go home and see his family in Tennessee, a visit that helped start him on a spiritual path.
“He accepted me,” Mercer said. “He always told me, ‘We’re going to get through this.’ ”
“If you met him, you loved him,” said Rabbi Shari Chen of Bene Shalom, who said he inspired her to become a rabbi.
He was born in Montreal, the son of Harry and Jean Goldhamer. His father, born in Germany, immigrated to Canada before World War II, as did his mother, who came from Russia.
In 1945, when he was 30 days old, doctors used radiation to remove a birthmark from one of his hands. But they got distracted and left him exposed to the radiation for too long, he said in the oral history: “My whole left side of my body was burned with radiation burns.”
It caused severe pain and required more than a dozen surgeries.
“I see there was a reason for me to have all these surgeries and all these radiation burns — the reason being for me to be sensitive to other people,” he said.
Rabbi Goldhamer got his bachelor’s degree in political science from Montreal’s Sir George Williams University and a doctorate in medieval philosophy from the University of Chicago.
For several years in the 1970s, he communicated the news in sign language on WMAQ-TV during the “Today” show.
He met Bagley, his wife of 41 years, in 1980 as they walked their dogs at Barry Avenue and Halsted Street. Over the years, they adopted many dogs from the Orphans of the Storm animal shelter.
His wife said that, at times, he’d forget things, like replacing the oil in his car, because “he was busy talking to God and the angels” rather than thinking about automobile maintenance.
Rabbi Goldhamer taught classes at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. He enjoyed painting, and his works were exhibited at galleries.
He looked forward to breakfasts at Annie’s Pancake House in Skokie.
He liked the music of Sam Cooke and fellow Montrealer Leonard Cohen.
With his wife, he wrote the book “Healing with God’s Love: Kabbalah’s Hidden Secrets.” He also co-wrote “This is for Everyone: Universal Principles of Healing Prayer and the Jewish Mystics.”
In addition to his wife, Rabbi Goldhamer is survived by his brother Dr. Paul Goldhamer.
Asked at one point what his philosophy was, he said it came down to just three things: “Be kind. Be kind. Be kind.”