Judy Harrow, assistant teacher at the Ben and Esther Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC, shares her knowledge of American Sign Language with students year round. To commemorate the end of Jewish Disability Awareness Month, Harrow and teacher Barbara Stadd invited Leah Caplan, a hard-of-hearing member of the Jewish community, into the classroom to teach signs specific for the Passover holiday.
Caplan signed and spoke as she taught the class of 5- and 6-year-olds words for “Passover,” “Seder” and “matzah,” as well as the blessing over wine. Students introduced themselves to Caplan using ASL and also sang and signed the Shema for her at the end of the event. For all but one of the 17 students, Caplan was the first hard-of-hearing and signing person they had ever met.
Caplan is active with the Center for Jewish Education’s JADE program: Jewish Advocates for Deaf Education. Yael Zelinger, the coordinator of JADE, received the request from the kindergarten class and reached out to Caplan, who was happy to visit and teach.
The students had plenty of questions, many of which were about Caplan’s family and how she communicates with others.
Caplan, whose parents are both deaf, uses a hearing aid. She grew up signing in Hebrew with her Israeli father and in English with her American mother. The two sign languages are very different, she explained. Caplan’s two siblings are not hearing impaired; her husband is hard of hearing, and their three children, who attend the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, are not hearing impaired. From Caplan’s description, she has navigated back and forth through the hearing, deaf, hard-of-hearing, speaking and signing communities throughout her life.
“When I speak to my parents, I turn off my voice and sign because they can’t hear,” she both said and signed to the children.
The JADE program at CJE aims to raise awareness throughout the community about the needs of those who are deaf and hard of hearing. They provide workshops about how to talk to a deaf or hard-of-hearing person and will send a representative to a classroom, board meeting or community center.
“People should be familiar with how to take a [TTY relay] call from a deaf person,” said Zelinger. “The program provides tips on how to [feel comfortable and] look a [deaf] person in the eye when speaking and talk to them in first person.”
There are many tips for respectful communication with deaf and hard-of-hearing people that JADE can provide in a brief 30- to 40-minute program to help make conversations comfortable and productive. The organization will also invite a person with a specific disability to speak to a class, board or staff, said Zelinger.
JADE also has an interpreter fund, so that parents of deaf or hard of hearing children can bring an interpreter to a parent-teacher conference, a play or other activity so parents can gain full access to their child’s education. JADE also received a grant to pay a stipend toward interpreters at Jewish events to encourage accessibility for all who wish to attend.
The organization provides a list of Jewish language and culture-knowledgeable interpreters for hire as well.
“My goal is, I’m trying to find every deaf and hard-of-hearing person here in Baltimore,” declared Zelinger, “and get them access to the resources they need.”