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March 16, 2006

Deaf-friendly synagogues offer sign language interpreters

From: Connecticut Jewish Ledger - West Hartford,CT,USA - Mar 16, 2006

By Stacey Dresner

When Fern Reisinger, who is deaf, was growing up, she says she did not feel included while attending synagogue.

"I never enjoyed temple. I never understood what was going on," she explained. "I went along with the group and just read. I lost out on being a whole Jewish person. I am familiar with general traditions, but do not have the true meaning of Judaism. That is a loss for me."

That changed when Reisinger and her family - husband Charlie, who is also deaf, and their two hearing children, as well as Fern's mother-joined Temple Sinai in Newington more than 10 years ago.

"As Rabbi [Jeffrey] Bennett became familiar with us as a family and our needs, he went out of his way to find interpreters so that we could be included," said Reisinger, who is director of education at the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford. "This was much appreciated. It allowed me to be involved in my children's Hebrew education."

Temple Sinai, a synagogue well-known for its inclusiveness, was one of the first Connecticut synagogues to offer sign-language services. But today there are a few more synagogues who do offer some sign language interpretation for some services or events.

Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, which has a couple of deaf members, offers sign-language interpreters at two Friday night Shabbat services a month as well as some other synagogue events.

In Middletown, Congregation Adath Israel began a pilot program six months ago with a sign language interpreter attending several events.

Congregation B'nai Jacob in Woodbridge has a list of freelance interpreters who they can call if they receive a request for signing.

Other Jewish organizations are also offering sign language services in order to make their events more welcoming to the deaf community. A sign language interpreter was present at the screening of "Ushpizin" at the Wesleyan University's Israeli Film Festival last month. And an interpreter was also on hand at the Greater Hartford Commission on Jewish Education's Teach-In in January.

"Someone in the deaf community learned about our program and asked if we could provide an interpreter," said the CJE's Anna Elfenbaum, who was only happy to find an interpreter for the event. "We want Jewish education to be accessible to all," she said.

'A place for all'

Temple Sinai in Newington began offering sign language interpreters more than ten years ago when a family with deaf members - which has since moved out of the area - joined the synagogue.

Today, there are four Temple Sinai members who are deaf, and Rabbi Bennett said that he considers it important that the congregation offer sign language interpreters when they are needed.

"The mission of Temple Sinai is inclusion - on the letterhead we have the words 'Makom l'kulam' -- 'A place for everybody,'" Rabbi Bennett said. "We don't want anyone to be excluded, including the deaf."

Temple Sinai offers sign language at every monthly family Shabbat service, during the High Holidays services, and at any adult education or other event when they get a request for an interpreter.

Maureen Chalmers of Oxford is one of Temple Sinai's main sign language interpreters.

She signed at the temple's religious school for five or six years when some deaf children were enrolled, and at bar and bat mitzvahs as well.

Chalmers, who is not Jewish, said that signing during Sunday school for young children helped her to learn a lot about the basics of Judaism.

Like most interpreters, Chalmers does not sign the Hebrew that is spoken during services, but only what the rabbi or teacher says in English. She can sign basic prayers like the Shema, but most often directs those reading her signs to page numbers for Hebrew prayers so they can read along.

"There are not a lot of Jewish people with interpreting skills in the state," she said. "If there were Jewish people who could sign during services it would be incredible. I am interpreting the best that I can, and I do a good job, but I can never do it with the subtle nuances that someone who is Jewish could."

Naomi Bravin, who is Jewish and who is working toward her certification in sign language interpreting, said that she doesn't think it is necessary for interpreters at synagogues to be Jewish.

"I don't think it is necessary, but you do need to understand the content," Bravin said. "If someone is familiar with the prayers and meaning, I don't think you have to be Jewish."

Bravin, a teacher at the American School for the Deaf, began learning sign language in high school, and after getting her bachelor's degree, got her Masters from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the prominent university for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

Naomi was tapped by Congregation Adath Israel to serve as their sign language interpreter during their sign language pilot program this fall.

The Middletown congregation began the pilot program at the suggestion of Laurie Meotti, a member of the deaf community, who is not Jewish. An advocate for the deaf, Meotti has spent the last year contacting synagogues with regard to offering sign interpreters.

"Even though I am not Jewish, I appreciate having the opportunity to attend services at Beth Israel and have grown to love that congregation and clergy," Meotti said. "The reason why I have set about doing what I've been doing for nearly a year is because I had noticed that only one synagogue in the greater Hartford area - Temple Sinai - was routinely providing sign interpreters. I felt that deaf Jews (and non-Jews alike) ought to have more I set about trying to convince synagogues to open their doors to the deaf."

"Laurie contacted us and we developed a friendship with her," said Rabbi Seth Riemer of Adath Israel. "She really encouraged us to think about offering this service and to really think about what it means, practically, but also with an emphasis on the spiritual and moral reasons for doing it."

Adath Israel began its pilot program in the fall - despite the fact that the synagogue has no deaf members. Naomi Bravin signed at several events organized by Adath Israel, including some adult education programs and services.

As the pilot program wraps up, Rabbi Riemer said that his congregation will have to evaluate whether the program was successful.

"I think it is a good thing to send the message - a sign of good faith - about offering services like this. Certainly, people can't say we have been indifferent."

Welcoming synagogues

Naomi Bravin - who says she will continue to be a sign language interpreter for Adath Israel if they find that they need one - herself belongs to Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford.

She met her husband, Jeff, who is deaf, when they were both working at the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York. Today, Jeff also works at the American School for the Deaf in administration. The Bravins and their three children joined Beth Israel a year ago, but visited a variety of synagogues before making their choice.

Naomi said that they have felt welcomed at every synagogue they attended.

"Every place we visited was welcoming and was open to the idea of getting interpreters," she said. "Every synagogue was willing to do what was needed in order for us to make us feel comfortable and welcomed at services if we were to become members."

Despite her skill as an interpreter, Naomi said she prefers not to act as an interpreter at her own shul.

"One of the downsides of being Jewish and interpreting is that for the big holidays, I want to be with my family, observing the holiday myself," she said. "That is the hard part - you want the service to be interpreted, but it is hard to interpret if you are celebrating the holiday yourself."

Serving everyone's needs

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs of Beth Israel said that he was first sensitized to the needs of the deaf community when he worked in Nashville with Rabbi Beth Davidson, who is a sign language interpreter.

He became even more aware of the importance of offering sign language for those who need it while officiating at a funeral where a deaf person was one of the mourners.

"The family had brought a sign interpreter to convey my message to that person," Rabbi Fuchs said.

"I was impressed with [the interpreter's] spirituality and empathy as well as the beauty of the sign interpretation that I again began to think about how we might better serve the needs of this underserved population."

The interpreter at the funeral was Naomi Bravin.

"The Bravins joined Beth Israel and, now the issue was more direct," Rabbi Fuchs said. "Unless we could have sign interpreters, one of our own members would be left out of the worship experience."

With a donation by a congregation member and the assistance of Beth Israel's librarian, Jane Zande, who began coordinating the effort, the congregation began to hire interpreters for some services.

"I hope the day comes when we can do it all the time," Rabbi Fuchs said. "It is a most gratifying feeling to know that this effort on our part opens up a warm meaningful worship experience to a population who previously was unable to participate fully."

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© 2006 Connecticut Jewish Ledger