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Synagogue Opens Doors to Congregants Who Are Deaf

June 22, 1989|MICHAEL ARKUSH | Times Staff Writer

For much of her youth, Judy SlomovicGunter missed out on the Jewish culture she deeply cherished.

Deaf since birth, she frequently could not understand the teachers or participate in class discussions at her North Hollywood religious school. And the deaf community offered no programs in Jewish education.

She was an outsider in both worlds. Until she discovered Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in Arleta in 1982.

"It's the only place I can feel both deaf and Jewish," Slomovic Gunter said through an interpreter.

About 250 Southland Jews, most of whom are hearing impaired, belong to the congregation, which celebrates its 29th birthday this month.

By providing congregants who sign for Sabbath services every other Friday and religious instruction on Sundays, the synagogue enables hearing-impaired Jews to observe their faith without misunderstanding or embarrassment. Worshipers say they feel a genuine sense of community with their peers. In addition, the temple is a forum for socialization.

More Obstacles

"We can't go to a regular movie because we can't follow the dialogue," said Slomovic Gunter. "It's there and yet it's not accessible to us. Deafness is not just a hearing loss. It's a communication loss, and the last thing we need when we go to temple are more obstacles."

Rabbi Alan Henkin, who is not hearing impaired, said the synagogue helps make up for "deaf people's limited opportunity for empowerment in society."

Henkin said congregants staff all the committees, set the budget and the schedule for the Sunday religious school, and organize services. When they are not meeting in person, they communicate with a TTD (Telecommunications Device for the Deaf) machine, through which their typed messages are relayed back and forth over the telephone lines.

Temple members regard their self-sufficiency with great pride.

"We are grateful for the help of others," said Bess Hyman, 70, who joined the congregation in 1973. "But we feel our temple is, of, by, and for the deaf and that is important to us. We pay its bills and we understand its services."

According to Martin Florsheim, president of the National Congress of Jewish Deaf, there are an estimated 750,000 hearing-impaired Jews in the United States. Temple Beth Solomon, he said, is one of a handful of synagogues for the hearing-impaired in the United States--the others are in New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

Temple Beth Solomon was organized in 1960. With comedian George Jessel in attendance, worshipers held their first Sabbath service in the Chadwick Chapel of Temple Israel of Hollywood. For the first five years, members traveled to various host temples and became known as "the mobile congregation."

Seeking Home

By the mid-1960s, congregants were eager for a permanent location. They found it in 1965 when the temple bought the Arleta building, which belonged to another synagogue, Temple Beth Torah.

One of the initial questions was: With what branch of the Jewish religion--Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox--would the new synagogue affiliate? Henkin said the temple's founders approached the Orthodox and Reform communities, but were accepted only by the Reform movement. Some Orthodox Jews, he added, have not always accepted the hearing impaired.

"There is a body of uninformed literature among some Orthodox Jews," Henkin said, "which makes assumptions that because they can't hear, they can't think clearly, a body of law which severly restricts deaf people. But outside of that part of the Orthodox community, this attitude is seen as anachronistic."

Most congregations, Henkin said, have been receptive to deaf worshipers. Other synagogues have invited Jews from Temple Beth Solomon to attend their services. Temple Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, for example, is currently making plans to help celebrate the 1991 bar mitzvah of Brad Cohen, whose Encino family belongs to both synagogues. A rabbi from each temple will lead the ceremony for Cohen, who is hearing impaired.

"Temple Beth Solomon is a perfect example of the Jewish community attitude that all its members are entitled to express its tradition," said Neal Schnall, principal of the Hebrew School at Temple Valley Beth Shalom.

Yet, Henkin said, while many synagogues welcome hearing impaired congregants, they don't provide the resources to make worship meaningful for them.

"They don't understand all the issues," Henkin said. "Finding interpreters for $10 or $20 an hour can get expensive, and they will do it maybe once a month."

Sign Language

Said Florsheim, who is hearing impaired: "I would love to see rabbis learning sign language and understanding deaf culture so they can serve us better. We would love to see many temples for the deaf, but it's unrealistic due to the small number of deaf Jews in other cities."

At Temple Beth Solomon, Henkin read from the prayer book while worshipers sign. Congregants include hearing-impaired children and adults, along with some hearing parents of deaf children.

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