Interpreter Fund Helps Engage Jewish Deaf Community

Once a month Etta Lily Cohen and her husband Milton, along with about 10 other deaf Jews in the community attend a Shabbat morning service at the Town & Village Synagogue in Manhattan, and follow the prayers and Torah readings just like other congregants.

ASL interpreter helps deaf Jews participate in synagogue services. Photo courtesy of JDRC ASL interpreter helps deaf Jews participate in synagogue services. Photo courtesy of JDRC

They arrive knowing they will be welcomed and able to fully participate in the service because the synagogue offers American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, paid for in part through the NY Jewish Community Deaf Interpreting Fund, supported by UJA-Federation of New York. The synagogue also raises additional funds to cover the cost of interpreters each month and at special services like the megillah reading for Purim, or Yom Hashoah and Kol Nidre.

“We learn so much and try to never miss a service,” said Cohen, who like her husband, became deaf during childhood following a serious bout of spinal meningitis. “Without an interpreter, it’s unbearable.”

Town & Village Synagogue is one of 37 Jewish organizations and synagogues from all denominations in the New York area who have used the fund that began four years ago and is administered by the Jewish Deaf Resource Center (JDRC).

“Besides Shabbat and holiday services at synagogues,” says Naomi Brunnlehrman, JDRC executive director, “the fund has helped provide interpreters for bikkur holim cancer support groups, Jewish educational classes and lectures, and communal events including celebrations for Israel and the Reelabilities Film Festival.”

Making Jewish Life Accessible for Deaf Jews

The fund offers matching grants of up to $800 for each organization during the calendar year and helps to engage deaf Jews in Jewish life.

For Alexis Kashar, who is deaf and also president of JDRC, the fund helped support an interpreter at her oldest daughter’s bat mitzvah at Scarsdale Synagogue, Temples Tremont and Emanu-el. Kashar adds that with the help of the fund, interpreters have also been made available upon request for all the major holidays and religious education programs at the synagogue.

At Town & Village Synagogue, Rabbi Laurence Sebert will occasionally hold an “Ask the Rabbi” session with an interpreter present, notes Bram Weiser, coordinator of the synagogue’s ASL-interpreted services and events.

“It’s a chance for someone who is deaf and never had that opportunity before to pose a question to a rabbi on any topic,” Weiser says.

The interpreted services reflect the congregation’s desire to be an inclusive community, explains J. Cynthia Weber, a hearing member who has also found an added benefit of ASL interpreting.

“Sometimes a parallel physical commentary on the text can be very meaningful,” Weber says. “To watch the interpreter’s arching arm going up and coming down is another translation of word and thought. It’s an alternative means to reach the essence of prayer. I didn’t know that could become part of the service.”

Yet for the Cohens, the interpreted services have meant a vital lifeline to Judaism.

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