by Susan F. Cohen
As a little girl, I took in all the visual elements of synagogue worship and endeavored to find meaning. I loved the look of the tallitot my father and grandfather wore to shul and would play with the tzitzit (fringes) during much of the service. Every New Year, my father would hoist me onto his shoulders so I could see the person blowing the shofar and the smiles of everyone as they listened to the various bursts of sound. And I looked forward to seeing our rabbi, cantor, and honorees parade around the sanctuary with the Torahs, linking us all together as one big Jewish family.
These visual symbols became my primary connections to Judaism because they took the place of what I could not hear. I was born profoundly deaf.
Our beautiful synagogue in Brooklyn had much to offer its members, but there was one fundamental problem: seating for the High Holy Days was assigned on a hierarchical pay system--the more you paid, the closer you sat to the bimah. As my parents couldn't afford seats near the front, we were consigned to the back of the large sanctuary, where I could not read the rabbi's lips or hear his voice (my hearing aid enables me to perceive select environmental sounds). My mother and father would serve as my ears, helping me to follow the service and summarizing the sermon afterwards.
In 1980, at the age of twenty-one, I married my college sweetheart, Jeff, who is hard of hearing. We began our lives in Maryland, and when our two daughters (who can hear) were ready to begin religious school, we joined Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, which offered interpreting services as often as needed. For the first time, we were able to sit in the first row of a temple sanctuary, near an interpreter. It was spiritually fulfilling to begin to understand the meanings of the different prayers. We felt ever more connected to our heritage.
Although we were now far away from my parents and grandmother, every year Jeff and I returned to Brooklyn to be with our extended family at High Holy Day services. Once we realized the benefit of having an interpreter, we asked my parents to inquire if their synagogue would engage one for us. They were told that "no money is available," so my parents picked up the tab. But the distance between us and the interpreter was too great, and we left the service feeling spiritually deprived. It was then that I realized that the visual elements of the service that had meant so much to me as a child no longer sufficed. And by this time my 89-year-old grandmother, whose hearing had deteriorated, also found the service disorienting and unfulfilling.
Why couldn't those "golden" front seats been used by the congregants who needed them most? Why give seating priority to wealthier members at the expense of worshippers with disabilities? Shouldn't the Jewish value of gemilut chasadim--loving kindness--be the guiding principle?
Shouldn't we all be able to hear the "heartbeat of Judaism" during the Days of Awe?
Susan F. Cohen is a founding member and chair of the Deaf Access Committee of Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland and a public librarian.