Access to Many Worlds

When Bernice Farr shares her family’s story, her kvelling could rival the jubilation at any book club, mah jongg game or senior center full of bubbies and savtas. Farr lights up with pride as she conveys her family’s rich identity. A third-generation Deaf Jewish woman, she expresses in American Sign Language (A.S.L.), through a video relay service, that she is a Deaf grandmother and a Deaf granddaughter. Over 80 years ago, her father founded the Brooklyn Hebrew Society for the Deaf, where she still enjoys High Holiday services and other gatherings with her community of friends.

Tzila Seewald-Russell, 25, an observant Orthodox Jew (see sidebar) smiles as she speaks her story, recalling the first meetings her parents had at her Brooklyn yeshiva, where they responded to concerned questions about her ability to follow along in class. At age 3, the first in her family to not hear, Tzila became the 13th-ever recipient of a cochlear implant, a surgically placed electronic device that provides a sense of sound to a person profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing. When Tzila said “bless you” to the director of kindergarten and pre 1-A who sneezed, the director became convinced she could accept her. She has spoken English throughout her mainstream education and is now pursuing a Master’s degree in social work.

Attorney Alexis Kashar, 45, whose legal practice is focused on civil rights and special education, is now president of the Jewish Deaf Resource Center (J.D.R.C.). She has become one of the public faces for deaf advocacy in the Jewish community, facilitating a panel discussion at the 2012 Reelabilities Film Festival and delivering the dvar Torah at a major Jewish funders conference. She is part of a three-generation deaf family, and her deaf parents made it a priority for her to be bilingual in A.S.L. and English. She said her “heart goes out” to people who “fall through the cracks” because they are usually limited to a communication mode as opposed to being given full access to language.
These three women highlight in their own lives the vast spectrum of deafness and some common dynamics experienced by deaf Jews, too often marginalized both by religious practice and by the inaccessibility of Jewish community functions. And for women, of course gender plays a role as well.

“We’re not all the same!”

When speaking to hearing people, Tzila Seewald-Russell identifies herself as “hard of hearing,” recognizing that people make many assumptions about the word “deaf,” including thinking that she cannot hear anything at all. In other settings, she says, “I would consider myself deaf (with a lower-case d). Even though I’m mainstreamed — which I’m grateful for because it’s allowed me to truly learn about community and to be involved in my synagogue, and I see tremendous value in being present there — I still can’t totally follow everything in shul or other large gatherings. I don’t feel like I’m a part of Deaf culture, though, because I didn’t grow up in it. I didn’t learn A.S.L. I often wish I did but I just don’t share the language.”

Seewald-Russell often feels split between deaf and hearing worlds, and told Lilith how lucky she feels that her parents decided on the implant, immersing her in Jewish schools and camps that wouldn’t otherwise have been (fully) accessible for her. She often tries to explain herself to hearing people when she first meets them, so they don’t feel uncomfortable. And when people ask her questions, she loves it. “It indicates to me that they are not only interested and interesting, but that they are also interested in getting to know me. It often seems like hearing people don’t know anything at all about deafness. Even in social work school, we talk about race, LGBT, but not enough about disabilities.” Seewald-Russell and her hearing husband are thrilled about the growing number of film and mainstream television shows featuring deafness and often cite examples from ABC’s “Switched at Birth” series to illustrate some of their experiences.

Bernice Farr, on the other hand, is deeply embedded in Deaf culture within the Jewish community and well beyond. She said that no language can express how proud she is that her son and grandchildren attended Gallaudet, the leading university for Deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Asked her opinion about cochlear implants for her children or grandchildren, Bernice emphatically declared, “They were born Deaf and should stay Deaf. We’re just Deaf — that’s all — the rest of us is the same. I’m happy being Deaf. There’s nothing wrong with me.“ She shared that “implants are cruel because they spoil the experience of being deaf and force people into the mainstream.”

Eden Ansell, an audiologist in Toronto, is troubled by the reluctance of many to avail themselves of whatever supports might be available, whether technological or social. For those who do, she said in an interview, “Nothing compares to the reaction on mom’s face when suddenly her child can hear more clearly — or when someone who has become depressed and detached because of gradual hearing loss suddenly feels connected again.”

Exclusion. And Inclusion

Alexis Kashar grew up with bagels and lox as one of her primary expressions of Judaism. She and her whole family, even her hearing sister, felt excluded from synagogue and Jewish community events, As her own children, who are not deaf, were growing up, she began exploring synagogue communities, first in California and then in Westchester County, New York. Some, overwhelmed by the cost and effort of hiring interpreters, asked her to “partner” — in other words, said Kashar, to share the expense. “It is like telling someone in a wheelchair to bring your own ramp.”

Kashar didn’t have interpreters until she reached high school, at which point she recognized what a difference they make. “I was able to get subsidized interpreters everywhere — from law school to law practice. Everywhere, except for synagogues — my own religion! I could become an attorney, a mother or anything else I wanted to be — but not a Jew. How could my 14-year-old daughter have higher status in the community than I did?” Since the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t cover religious institutions, synagogues do not have to make accommodations (while organizations with a nonreligious purpose must do so).

Kashar felt it was important to attend her daughter’s bat mitzvah retreat, together with her classmates’ parents, and felt fortunate she could afford to split the interpreting costs. Naomi Brunnlehrman, co-founder and executive director of the Jewish Deaf Resource Center — and a rare trilingual interpreter in English, Hebrew and A.S.L. — enabled Kashar to take part in this important family experience. When her daughter was given the Torah portion she would read at her bat mitzvah, it happened to include the verse from Leviticus 19:14, translated as “You shall not curse a deaf person. You shall not place a stumbling block before a blind person.” This was all new to Alexis Kashar, and she became increasingly energized about practicing Judaism.

In December, as president of the J.D.R.C., she addressed, in sign language, 175 major philanthropists and professionals at Advance: The Ruderman Jewish Special Needs Funding Conference, sharing the podium with Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin, who is also deaf and Jewish. Kashar told of feeling like a beggar for services within her own community. She emphasized the importance of providing communication access, which includes having a hearing amplification system, captioning and/or interpreters, so that Jewish programs are accessible, and she announced that funders have the power to tell organizations to make this a priority. “If synagogues have budgets for flowers, they can do this, too. They won’t just be getting me — they’ll be getting my whole family.”

The effects of both exclusion and inclusion are very real. Kashar was approached many times by signers representing Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormon Church. She learned firsthand that other faiths were well ahead of Judaism in reaching out to the deaf. The phenomenon of proselytizing and converting deaf Jews is common, and there is now educational programming to prepare Jewish individuals on how to respond when approached. Moreover, some who are deaf and Jewish may feel a greater connection to Deaf culture than to the Jewish community, and may be willing to switch religions for life partners or simply in order to be in a community where they are more explicitly welcomed.
A Religious Take on Deafness

Whether because they have inherited an Askenazi gene for deafness or are deaf for some other reason, there have always been deaf Jews. We know this at least in part from the fact that Jewish law has in some cases appeared to discriminate against the deaf. The assumption, when ancient law was being codified, seemed to be that people who could not hear also could not understand, and could not be full participants in Jewish ritual. Some Jewish texts are now being reread and reinterpreted so that deaf Jews are included in ritual obligations from which they’d formerly been excluded. Take the signal Jewish prayer, the Sh’ma, translated as an injunction to “hear.” Does it not apply to a deaf person? Is the prayer really about hearing? Or is it saying, “Listen. Pay Attention. Be Aware.”

And then there is the religious obligation to hear the shofar being blown. With a hand on the horn, is it not enough for one to feel its vibrations?

And the obligation to hear the megillah being read aloud at Purim. What if it is interpreted in A.S.L., and deaf congregants experience the vibrations of the noise and raucousness in
the synagogue?

In 2011 Rabbi Pamela Barmash of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly authored a response to the question of whether or not a deaf person can serve as a witness to a marriage or conversion. She concluded that “sign language is a means of communication equal in sophistication to oral language. This means that sign language can convey all the information required in halachic matters such as a marriage or conversion ceremony. The deaf therefore can serve as witnesses.“

The Jewish Community Opens Some Doors

One synagogue is a model for how to welcome deaf Jews. Bram Weiser coordinates an interpreter program at Manhattan’s Town and Village Synagogue, where a special fund created in honor of his 40th birthday has enabled fully interpreted Shabbat morning services once a month in addition to other programming. Weiser, who is not deaf, noted that Deaf community attendance goes far beyond deaf individuals — often including student interpreters. “The ripple effect of this is amazing. One of the greatest challenges to synagogues providing interpretation is that there is such a small pool of interpreters who are also versed in Hebrew and Judaism.” While Weiser can now add himself to this short list, he sees the interpreted services at Town and Village as an opportunity to encourage the development of Judaically minded interpreters.

The congregation’s Purim celebration includes interpretation of the full megillah reading, skits, remarks and anything else that takes place, with the full support of Rabbi Laurence Siebert. Programs are also held for Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day and other occasions. Although there are deaf congregations, such as Bene Shalom, a “temple of the deaf” in Skokie, Illinois, Town and Village is one of just a small number of mainstream synagogues offering this inclusivity.

Including deaf Jews is now on the agenda of the continent’s largest Jewish federation. Anita Altman, deputy managing director of government relations and external affairs at UJA-Federation of New York, is a longtime advocate on disability and access issues. Recently she spurred the creation of a deaf interpreter fund, modeled after a similar effort in Washington, D.C., which provides challenge grants for organizations to hire interpreters, a door-opener for synagogues and Jewish organizations to begin making deaf and hard-of-hearing Jews feel welcome and valued. At a March event on “Women, Clothing and Religion” at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the fund made possible the presence of two sign language interpreters for the day-long program.

Chantall Lowe, also of UJA-Federation of New York, convened key organizations in the deaf community in a Deaf and Hard of Hearing Workgroup. At that initial meeting in September, Bernice Farr and others signed with fervor, indicating that interpreted prayer services weren’t the only accommodation needed for deaf Jews, pointing out that nothing can compare to actually having religious services in their own language, led by their rabbi, who can sign. The discussions focused not only on funding but also on the imperative for advocacy, particularly on employment and legal issues

One excellent outcome: UJA-Federation of New York announced in February that all programs it sponsors will provide sign language interpretation upon request. Nonetheless, interpretation isn’t all that’s needed. As Tzila Seewald-Russell pointed out, sign language interpretation does not sufficiently serve the needs of people like her, with cochlear implants, who do not sign. Following up on the Workgroup, Lowe said that the main questions we should be asking are “Whose problem is it? The individuals who aren’t getting access? We need to recognize that the responsibility lies with the community.”

What about Deaf Women?

While some are exploring how to meet the special needs of deaf Jews, there are also special concerns for deaf women. Research shows that of the four million women who are abused each year by their partners, 500,000 are deaf, deaf-blind or hard of hearing. These crimes are among the most under-reported in America.

A deaf woman may suffer abuse specifically because of her deafness. Her abuser, who may also be her interpreter, may isolate her by restricting access to other deaf people for friendship and support or by monitoring her communication devices. She may suffer verbal abuse in the form of constant criticism of her language skills or by intimidating use of body language and A.S.L. A hearing abuser may block the use of sign language in the house, prevent her from communicating with her children, or take away a TTY device, hearing aid or hearing dog — or may simply turn off the lights, preventing communication by writing, signing or lip-reading. Physical violence can include binding her hands, gagging her or putting tape over her mouth if demands are not met. Abuse may also be in the form of turning away to speak to someone about her so she can’t read lips or forcing her to agree to what is being said even if she doesn’t understand it.

The small size and close-knit nature of deaf communities often makes it harder to keep plans secret and move away or hide from abusive partners. Similar to immigrant groups with limited English proficiency, deaf individuals encounter linguistic barriers that may seem insurmountable. Emergency 911 operators may hang up on a deaf caller. And other services from domestic violence agencies, police and courts might not feel fully accessible unless there is a deaf advocate in place, or staff who sign or are familiar with deaf culture. Shelters need other accommodations, like buzzers that light up and TTY phones. Deaf Jewish women may have the additional need for a shelter with a kosher kitchen and staff who understands their other religious concerns.

Daisy Martinez, a deaf advocate for those experiencing domestic violence and other crimes, emphasizes the importance not only of advocacy, but of qualified interpreters. She has countless stories to share of those who rely on their batterer or other family members for interpretation, a dynamic highly problematic in instances of abuse.
 “Deafness makes us more vulnerable,” commented Tzila Seewald-Russell. “Someone has to have your back. “

Hearing. And Listening.

Anita Altman spoke for many when she said, “Hopefully people recognize that the community is now making a good faith effort not only to make accommodations for deaf Jews, but also that they are wanted at the table.”

Taking the time to hear the experiences of our neighbors, colleagues and co-religionists who are deaf or hard of hearing can provide us with much needed lessons about our own hearing. Are we fully hearing the voices of all who surround us and comprise our communities? Are our communities accessible to all? If not, do we have any idea what we’re missing?

Time and again both professionals and the deaf Jews they serve point out that the Jewish community has been missing out on the valuable contributions that could come from “talented, smart people who are just like us, except for their hearing.”

Chana Widawski, a social worker, is a bicycle commuter and story collector who works with survivors of abuse and violence, leads educational travel programs around the globe, and works as a writer and consultant.