Friday, July 29, 2005

At Synagogues, Services Open Doors for the Deaf

From the newsroom of The New York Times, New York City, New York, Saturday, July 23, 2005 .....

At Synagogues, Services Open Doors for the Deaf


Before she joined a synagogue for the deaf where services are conducted in sign language and two of the five choir members cannot hear, Roz Robinson found herself lost, unable to follow the cantor in her former synagogue as he chanted the prayers that had once been so familiar.

"I remember feeling very embarrassed to have my family tell me that the tunes I knew to various prayers were not being used," Mrs. Robinson said in an interview conducted by e-mail because it was the easiest form of communication. Though she had hearing loss in childhood, Mrs. Robinson, a 55-year-old resident of Woodland Hills, Calif., was not profoundly deaf until her late 30's.

Mrs. Robinson, now at Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in Tarzana, Calif., said, "It got to the point where I would go and just pray quietly to myself so as not to feel uncomfortable."

Many aspects of society are not easy for the deaf to navigate, but synagogues historically held particular challenges. Few people spoke both sign language and Hebrew, so accurate translation was difficult. Moreover, a good deal of care and education of the deaf population was traditionally done by nuns. Jewish organizations helped the deaf, but many focused on social programs more than religious education.

"Synagogues just were not accessible to the deaf," said Paula Tucker, who was recently elected a member of the Jewish Deaf Congress board and is the director of Hillel at Gallaudet, the Washington, D.C., university for the hearing impaired. The Gallaudet Hillel has about 15 members and attracted 45 people for its Seder this past Passover.

"The deaf were alienated from the Jewish community and had very little education" outside of what they got in the secular world, said Ms. Tucker, who can hear.

Religiously, she said, "Christian thought was to save the souls of the deaf, and since Jews don't have that approach," not as much effort was made.

Rabbi Gordon Tucker of Temple Israel in White Plains, who also teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan, said: "In the time of the Talmud, the assumption was that people who did not hear were, in effect, incapable of learning the culture. They were not considered to have the obligations of the commandments, and so while they were otherwise cared for, they were outside the culture. That is an anachronism now, when people who cannot hear can be more a part of the culture than those who do."

In 1960, Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf was founded in Los Angeles, seeking to serve this overlooked population. Ordained rabbis and a Hebrew school came a decade later. Around the nation, too, others began to find more ways to accommodate the deaf.

Among those moved to serve was Naomi Brunnlehrman of Hartsdale, N.Y., who is a freelance interpreter at synagogues in the New York area, shuttling between Shabbat services at one synagogue and bar and bat mitzvahs at another. Ms. Brunnlehrman, who can hear, first became interested in the deaf during a high school internship at a residential school run by nuns.

She got a degree in speech pathology, but her interest in the deaf was abiding, as was her conviction that Jews needed particular help.

She studied at nights at a community college to become an interpreter and then at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan to get a master's degree in philosophy and Talmud. The combined skills put her in great demand.

To Ms. Brunnlehrman, 43, signing a service is much more than a matter of direct translation. Knowledge of the service, especially nonverbal components, must be complete, especially in times of great emotion, when, Ms. Brunnlehrman said, it is important to cue deaf congregants to look around the sanctuary at other congregants to get a sense of what is happening off the page.

Today, some synagogues have their own signers. Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, N.J., also has two members who use sign language. Carolyn Shane, the executive director, said invitations went out to congregants and noncongregants to attend services when one of the signers was translating, with the first two rows of the synagogue set aside for the deaf. The synagogue also has technological aids for the deaf in those first rows.

Congregation Ohev Shalom, a synagogue in Orlando, Fla., has a rabbi, David Kay, who can sign. Rabbi Kay met his future wife, who also signs, when they were temporarily working at Congregation Bene Shalom - Hebrew Association of the Deaf in Skokie, Ill.

With signing more prevalent in synagogues and assisted technologies to help, deaf Jews have been going to worship and be educated in far greater numbers. But that has created a challenge for Mrs. Robinson, who sometimes leads services at Temple Beth Solomon, which has no permanent rabbi and where attendance has dwindled. There are currently 71 members, down from a high of 400, said Jan Seeley, the administrator of the synagogue and a hearing, non-Jewish interpreter.

"Deafness doesn't run in families," Mrs. Robinson said, "so as our founding members are dying, few new members come to replace them."

Five years ago, the synagogue sold its building and shut its Hebrew school. It now shares space with Temple Judea, a hearing synagogue in Tarzana.

Ms. Seeley said that the synagogue also used to attract many nondeaf Jews, but that with greater access all around, there was less need today.

"The fact that deaf people have so many choices now," Ms. Seeley said, "and can live in the mainstream with the help of gigantic technological advances and much less frustration is a triumph of their struggle."

Mrs. Robinson said she wanted to see her synagogue for the deaf survive. "Temple Beth Solomon gave me back the ability to fully participate in services enriched by the use of hands," she said.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company