Deaf Group at Crossroads


Computer and medical technology have provided tremendous benefits to the deaf and hard of hearing in recent years, but left groups like the local Hebrew Association of the Deaf facing the same challenge as many mainstream Jewish congregations — shrinking membership among younger generations. 

Richard Balsam stands at the head of a table directing fellow members of the Hebrew Association for the Deaf as they play a game, stacking chips and holding up cards after a Thanks­giving meal at their building in Northeast Philadelphia.

The room is filled with about 40 people, mostly middle age and senior adults who are deaf or hard of hearing. Some of them have been involved with the group for decades.

But the younger generation hasn’t followed suit. Over the last 20 years, more deaf people have undergone surgery to put in cochlear implants, small electronic hearing devices that are particularly effective when introduced at a young age. The implants, along with video-calling technologies such as Skype and FaceTime, which allow people who use sign language or read lips to remotely communicate with one another, have removed some of the challenges that in effect helped create a distinct deaf culture.

Those technological advances are part of the reason why the Hebrew Association of the Deaf has struggled to attract new members in recent years, and the future for it and similar organizations looks bleak.

As Balsam, 64, puts it, the “computer has been both a blessing and a curse.”

Ken Kazahaya, a pediatric ear, nose and throat surgeon who does cochlear implant surgeries at Children’s Hospital of Phila­delphia, hears from critics who say “we’re committing geno­cide because we’re destroying their culture and their numbers are declining.”

The computer and medical technology that allows for better communication — cochlear implants in particular — can provide tremendous benefits for a demographic that traditionally has had lower income, employment and education levels than the general population, according to various studies.

But much in the same way that Jews have assimilated into America, when the gap shrinks, that sense of common struggle and bond can also dissipate.

As such, organizations devoted to the deaf and hard of hearing are facing the same challenge as many mainstream Jewish congregations — shrinking membership among younger generations. In some ways, the reasons behind the problem — greater assimilation, changes in the way people socialize — are the same, too.

When it was founded in 1907, the Hebrew Association of the Deaf aimed to provide a place for deaf people to participate in Jewish life because so few congregations had services or interpreters for them. At one time, the group served as many as 150 hearing-impaired Jews. The group now has 105 members, according to Balsam, and only about half of them are Jewish.

While technology has opened up many doors for younger people, Balsam said, it’s sad “from a deaf perspective that what we call deaf or hard-of-hearing culture will have been reduced. The emphasis on signing will have been reduced.”

Many deaf people “have come to see themselves as a linguistic and cultural minority community rather than a ‘disability group,’ ” according to a 2005 report from the Centre for Applied Studies of Deafness at Griffith University in Australia.

“Being deaf is not a handicap; it’s more like speaking a foreign language,” said David Maharam, a Conservative rabbi who has led the association on a part-time basis for more than two decades.

At High Holiday services during the fall, Maharam, who has full hearing, stood at the front of the chapel at the group’s building and read the Shema as the roughly 20 people in attendance prayed in sign language. The group also held services at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am, a Reform congregation in Abington before renting  and then purchasing the Rose Olanoff Community Center building in 1999.

“I just love it here; it’s the No. 1 thing I look forward to all the time,” said Barbara Kass, 79, who serves as president of the association’s sisterhood and has been a member for more than 20 years.

She is also a member of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Senior Citizens of Delaware Valley and cited similar declines in membership there.

The non-Jewish members of the Hebrew Association of the Deaf cannot vote or hold officer positions but leaders say they are important to the group’s continuity. There were greater numbers at the Thanksgiving event, for example, than at Yom Kippur services.

“We are a Jewish deaf and hard-of-hearing organization — however, we also are realistic that we need all people to continue to survive and help support us,” said Balsam, who teaches American Sign Language and math classes at Abraham Lincoln High School in Northeast Philadelphia.

Gabrielle Petroff is one of the few members under age 30 at association functions. She grew up attending Hebrew Association of the Deaf religious services with her hearing parents despite being “mainstreamed” — attending public schools — after elementary school at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.

“I enjoyed the services because I attended with people who were like me, who also were deaf,” said Petroff, 29, who does not have an implant.

She went on to graduate from Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf in Washington, D.C., and is now an elementary teacher at the McMichael Morton School in West Philadelphia. She said she knows fewer than 10 deaf Jewish people under the age of 35 in the region.

She said other deaf Jews her age may not get involved with the association because of transportation — deaf people often face additional hurdles in driving or using public transportation; finances — deaf people face higher unemployment; the older makeup of the group; or “maybe they just don’t want to join.”

Cochlear implants can help deaf people hear and speak, allowing them to communicate without sign language. According to a 2011 study, about half of children born with severe hearing loss now undergo cochlear implant surgery.

“The new generation is being put in a position where speech and verbal communication is far more important than signing,” said Balsam. “It’s sad that such a change is taking place, but it’s also one of the facts of life.”

Balsam said he teaches a number of people with cochlear implants who are resistant to learning sign language because they don’t think they need it.

“I look at them and I say, ‘What guarantee do you have that your hearing is not going to suddenly get worse?’ ” Balsam said.

For his part, Kazahaya noted that of the more than 500 surgeries he’s performed, not one of his patients has been the child of parents who are both deaf.

“The deaf community doesn’t necessarily view being deaf as a problem,” said Kazahaya. “It’s only the hearing community that typically feels that way — that if you’re deaf, there’s a prob­lem.”

Despite some of the benefits of the new technology, some of the same downsides of texting and Skype that hit the general population apply to deaf individuals as well. Before such technologies became common, Heather Schmerman said, she and fellow deaf and hard of hearing friends would get together just to talk.

“We all had to be in the same room to have a conversation and what we would do is chat for hours and hours,” said Schmerman, 33, who does not have an implant. These days, much of the conversation can happen remotely but she has noticed “that the amount of time spent talking is less.”

Schmerman says that older deaf Jews appear to be more close-knit than her generation in both romantic and platonic relationships. She married someone who is Jewish but not deaf.

And she may not be involved with the Hebrew Association of the Deaf or belong to a synagogue, but she is Jewishly connected. She volunteers at Beth Sholom Congregation; traveled to Israel on a Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia trip; and participated last year in the Tribe 12 Fellowship program, a start-up incubator for Jewish young professionals.

 In fact, her venture, Sign of the Times, aims to educate parents on how to use sign language in storytelling, regardless of whether or not their children have hearing loss.

Balsam, who was born with the ability to hear but said his hearing has become progressively worse since he was 13, is now “seriously considering” cochlear implant surgery to help in his personal and professional life.

“I am missing information,” he said. “I have the best possible hearing aids; however they can only do so much.”

Of what the future holds for Hebrew Association of the Deaf, Balsam is optimistic. The organization “has gone through and survived many wars, changes in the United States economy, terrorism threats and attacks, and other national and international events,” he said.

“We will continue to survive and strive for many years to come.”


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