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Accessibility and Reconnecting to My Spiritual Roots

Updated: Jul 15, 2022

Sound Advice by Ruth Bernstein

Ruth Bernstein, Hearing Advocate

Recently, I reread my year-end blog post “I’m Grateful for 2021” because we are halfway through 2022, and I wanted to see if there had been any significant changes in my life since the beginning of the year. As I read the story, I realized my life is holding steady, thanks to the internet. I continue to participate in online and in-person activities I enjoy with one major addition: I joined a hearing-accessible synagogue!

I’ve been a member of an Orthodox Jewish congregation most of my life, except for the time when my children were growing up and our family belonged to a Conservative synagogue in New Jersey. Orthodox synagogues do not use microphones or other electronic devices on the Sabbath and holidays. Even though I use a cochlear implant (CI) and a powerful hearing aid, I am technically deaf and stopped attending services a long time ago because I could not hear and was totally frustrated. Before the pandemic, I visited neighborhood synagogues in person, looking for one I felt comfortable at that was hearing accessible. I had no luck.

Online Worship: A Revelation

When the pandemic arrived, I felt vulnerable and wanted to reconnect to my Jewish roots. Suddenly, synagogues in New York and all over the country went on line with services and programs, some of them captioned, others not. I prayed and participated in programs at congregations in New York, Washington DC, Savannah GA, Portland, OR and several New Jersey towns. Being able to sit at my computer and say familiar prayers with a group of people I did not know was a refreshing and eye-opening adventure! Before the 2021 Jewish New Year, my son Ben told me about the Brotherhood Synagogue, a Conservative congregation in Manhattan.

Brotherhood Synagogue, NYC

They use AI (i.e., artificial intelligence) captions for online services, classes and lectures. It has been a revelation and heartwarming to know I can participate in this community because they are very much aware of the needs of their members with hearing loss. I’m hoping to go to services in person eventually, so I can try out their audio loop. Meanwhile, I join the online service Saturday morning and am able to follow along, although Hebrew isn’t available in AI yet. I understand that is in the works.

Because I was curious to know what happened in other religious communities, I reached out to some friends to find out what happened in their lives.

Ann Marie Picardo, President of HLAA Morris County, NJ, shared the following:

St. Patrick Church, Chatham, NJ

When we were in lockdown during the pandemic, the St. Patrick Church in Chatham, NJ, the Catholic church I belong to, started livestreaming the masses on YouTube, something they had never done before. Since I hear well enough on my computer, I didn't need to rely on captions, so I often didn't check them. I've since gone back to my church's YouTube channel and found masses that have captions.

Mary Fredericks, HLAA NYC Chapter Secretary, 1987-2016, wrote:

Church of the Epiphany, NYC

Our Epiphany Roman Catholic Church was closed from March 14th until early July. I soon found some virtual masses televised from Rockville Center and Alabama on the weekends. The TV masses were not captioned, so I used my iPhone Otter app to help me “hear.” While I appreciated the opportunity to pray together with others, the deeper spiritual feelings of being truly present with them and the Lord were missing. The return to church was emotional and so very welcome and the audio loop was waiting for me! Now, at weekend masses, the prayer responses and hymns are projected on large screens in front of the church. Unfortunately, the sermons are not. I’ve noticed some people using their phones, whether Otter or not I don’t know. And the loop is in good listening order.

Arlene Romoff, CHC Board Member, former President of the HLAA-NJ State Association, and author of two books on hearing loss, wrote:

Kol Dorot, Oradell, NJ

I had always attended Friday evening services and Saturday morning Torah study in person at my synagogue, Kol Dorot, a Reform congregation in Oradell, NJ. The pandemic forced us to do services and Torah study via Zoom. For me, a person with a hearing loss, it was the ideal communication setup! I could see everyone's face, they all spoke into their microphones, I could wear my own headphones plugged into the audio of my computer, and the automated captioning had become surprisingly accurate. It was the ideal setup—except, there was no opportunity to socialize or chat with friends and clergy after the services or classes. When the services allowed attendance in person with masks, I still participated remotely, via livestream. I was able to get captioning on the Chrome browser, and that worked nicely. I still missed connecting with people in person, however. I may have a chance to attend Friday services outdoors, so that would be my opportunity to engage in conversation with other attendees. But that, too, would depend on masks, another obstacle to communication.

Solutions to Be Thankful For

As you can tell from above, the solutions have shifted with varying needs. I lit my own Shabbat candles every Friday night at home, sipped my own grape juice and ate my own challah at the wine and bread blessing portion of the service— something I hadn't done when attending in-person services all these years. I now use the sterling silver Kiddush cup my father received at his Bar Mitzvah in 1925, which bears his initials, E.K. This wouldn't have become my tradition had the pandemic not occurred—truly finding a silver lining.

If you would like to know more about making your own social/family/religious community hearing accessible, contact CHC’s Carolyn Stern, Director, Outreach and Strategic Initiatives, or Terrence Williams, Assistant Director, Berelson Hearing Technology Center. They can assist you with your questions.

Also, be sure to join the informative, online HLAA NYC Chapter monthly meetings, which are recorded for viewing.

Truly Finding a Silver Lining

The NYC Department of Health just suggested people start wearing masks indoors and outdoors in crowds because of the increase in the Omicron BA.5 variant. As an 89 year old, I continue to live a masked existence, avoiding crowds as much as possible. Even so, as Arlene writes, the pandemic has truly brought us a silver lining because, if necessary, we can continue to participate in our religious, social and family lives online.

Hurrah for technology and all the people who use it!

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