Editor's Note: Alexis Kasher, the current president of the Jewish Deaf Resource Center, recently shared her personal experiences and perspectives on inclusion for people who are deaf in the Jewish community at the Foundation for Jewish Camping conference. New Normal editor Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer interviewed Kashar about the conference.
NN: What is your experience of inclusion for people who are deaf in the Jewish community?
AK: I spent many years practicing civil rights and special education law. My practice focused on the civil and education rights of people who are deaf and hard of hearing or with disabilities. Laws are in place to protect their rights; however, enforcement is still an issue. It has been many years since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and various federal special education laws was passed but we still have a ways to go before we are at 100 percent compliance. The truth is, once we are at 100 percent compliance, we will have achieved universal design that will benefit everyone. For instance, imagine how strollers would get around without curb cuts and how we could watch the Super Bowl in a noisy public place without closed captioning. However, for the most part religious organizations are exempt from compliance with the ADA.
Given that in general there is no legal mandate for access in synagogues and other places of public worship, we must rely on the goodwill of others. This means there needs to be an understanding of the various and sometimes complex issues. The lack of education and understanding about the needs of the Jewish deaf and hard of hearing individual has resulted in the exclusion of our community for over 4,000 years. Some solutions are very simple, starting with an open heart and creative thinking that begins with the deaf and hard of hearing individual at the same decision making table. Judaism is also unique due to the added complexity that the use of Hebrew language brings into the equation.
How is Hebrew language a barrier?
Not many sign language interpreters are trilingual and are able to translate from English to American Sign Language to Hebrew. Many people who are deaf also don’t know Hebrew. One can argue that many hearing people do not know Hebrew as well. However, the familiarity of various verses and prayers whether or not one understands the meaning provides comfort and guidance at a typical service. My parents are also deaf and I didn’t grow up attending synagogue as we were not aware of accommodations in the Jewish community during my early school years.
What are possible accommodations that communities could make?
There are a number of solutions to help bring Jewish people who are deaf into communities and make everything — from Jewish schools to adult education programs accessible. Solutions may involve interpreters, assistive listening devices, captioning and services led by those who are fluent in ASL and Hebrew. There are a plethora of other possible solutions that we probably can devise with all that is available online. The essential thing is nothing should be done for us without us. People who are deaf or hard of hearing should not only be brought into the discussions about how to create the best accommodations for each community, they need to lead those discussions with our Jewish community partners.
What is your current Jewish community like?
We recently became members of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY where my son, Benjamin, will be a bar mitzvah next year. The rabbi, Jonathan Blake, and the other clergy at the synagogue have gone out of their way to make things work; he has really tried to make us feel included as a family by providing accommodations and beyond. For example, I went to a service where an interpreter was scheduled for less time than turned out to be necessary and she had to leave for another commitment. After she left, the rabbi made an effort to be more visible to me and included more visual communication in the rest of his talk. I am pretty sure I was the only one in the room that noticed this. This was a subtle gesture on his part, but was huge in terms of making sure I could maximize my time and it was greatly appreciated.
What are your hopes for the Jewish community going forward?
There are many Jewish people who have converted to other religions, including Catholicism and Mormonism, because those churches are so ahead of us in terms of providing accommodations for people who are deaf. We have a lot of catching up to do. When you serve one person who is deaf or hard of hearing there is a ripple effect. You are also serving or including his/her family and friends, who might not have come to a Jewish community event otherwise. The numbers grow exponentially and the time is now to bring us to the table.
If people aren’t sure where to begin, please contact the Jewish Deaf Resource Center — we are there to help.
Alexis Kashar is a mother of three and a long time cvil rights attorney. Currently, Kashar is the General Counsel and Chief of Strategic Planning for Krown Manufacturing, a manufacturer of cutting edge and universally designed products for the deaf and hard of hearing community.