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Open Letter To The Women Who Sit In My Seat In Synagogue From The Deaf Woman Who Needs It

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You do not know me, at least not by name. This year, for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, my assigned seat is directly behind you. But it was not the seat which I needed. The seat I needed was the seat which you requested, and were assigned.
You should know that I specifically requested your seat. And I was assured that “of course”, I will be able to sit there. But that did not happen. But, please let me explain myself further…
I am deaf. Since birth. I am not 100% deaf but close enough. I have over 80% loss in my left ear and 100% loss in my right ear. I use a hearing aid in my left ear and have a cochlear implant in my right ear. Together they help me hear – but even with them, I am not a “hearing” person. I am still deaf. I do not hear everything. And I do not hear the same way you, or any other hearing person does.
Being deaf means I have to rely on other senses and other input in order to understand what I hear and what I do not hear. I read lips – a skill which I acquired naturally. My hearing loss was not diagnosed until I was four years old – so I was managing to understand what was being said based on what I could see with my eyes – lip movements. But lip reading is not a replacement for hearing because there are too many situations in which I am not afforded the ability to lip read. And when I am unable to lip read in some situations, it is truly a deprivation for me.
I gain understanding of speech from the combination of sound, sight, and context. Sometimes, like in shul, I have a “script” – a siddur, machzor or Chumash. But even then…I still do not reach a 100% hearing state.
As a religious Jewish woman, I am relegated to sitting on the wrong side of the mechitza. Wrong because it does not afford me the opportunity to sit in the best seat for the most optimal listening and hearing experience. So, what I do in shul is, I seek out what is the best seat for me under those circumstances. And this year, we joined your shul – and your seat is the most optimal seat for me. It places me parallel to the bima, albeit not as close to it as I would prefer. I am able to turn my head just a little bit and to see in profile the person leading the prayers or the person reading from the Torah and see his lips.
What I do hear, especially from a distance, is usually the vowels – oo, ah, au, eh, ee, ae, eye, ih, uh, -- and those sounds form a pattern. A pattern, which, in English, my brain can recognize, and based on context, will “fill in” all the missing consonants for me, and thus give me understanding of what I am hearing. And my brain can do this in a split second. But only in English, my native language.
Hebrew, especially chanted Hebrew, is another story. I use my siddur, machzor or Chumash to help me along – but I frequently lose my place. And when that happens, I look up, I look over to the prayer leader or the Torah reader, and I watch his lips. I then can ascertain a phrase and try to find it and thus regain my place in the davening or the reading of the Torah. And for me to read lips, especially from a distance, I need an unobstructed view.
In the seat behind you, I do not have that opportunity for there is no break in the curtain or the mechitza at that point. But in your seat, there is. Additionally, my husband sits just the other side of the mechitza, in that row, and he is able to help me find my place again when I lose it – for I arrive early always – at the beginning of the davening, and there are usually no women nearby for me to ask.
I am aware that there are other women in the congregation who may also suffer hearing loss, but I believe nearly all of them are what we call “late deafened” – meaning they suffered their hearing loss later in life, long after they have acquired normal speech and an “aural” memory. I never had that. I speak quite well, albeit with a slight speech impediment and the fact that I function as well as I do is a testament really to my mother. For she was the one who dragged me, as a child, to speech therapy daily – with a baby on her hip. And she was the one who repeated that therapy with me at home, also on a daily basis. But my ability to function so well also makes my disability much more invisible and less understood.
Growing up, I did not experience this difficulty as I was sheltered by the umbrella of my parents who, as longer time members of a shul, were able to wield more influence, and to be sure to acquire for me the most optimal seat for seeing, listening, and hearing within the woman’s section.
Once I became an independent adult, no longer under the parental umbrella, I discovered that the world of the shul was not as welcoming as I had experienced. I discovered that seniority, wealth, and prestige were the determining factors in getting a good seat in shul during the High Holidays, and that disability, especially an invisible disability such as mine, would go nowhere toward getting me a good seat in shul. I have fought for years for the right to sit in the most optimal seat for my needs during the chagim – and I have lost nearly all of the time. I still find this to be absolutely incredible.
We are taught, in Jewish tradition, a concept called “derech eretz”. Literally translated it means “the way of the land (world)”. But a more figurative definition is that derech eretz is the code of behavior that connects us as human beings and as Jews. According to a midrash (rabbinic commentary), derech eretz comes before the Torah – meaning that before we begin to perform mitzvot and learn Torah, we must live our lives with derech eretz.
And so, in the spirit of derech eretz, our community recognizes that people with disabilities need a helping hand, to be able to function and be included, which is why disabled parking spaces exist, and special bathrooms and stalls exist, spaces for those wheelchair bound and those with walkers exist in public places. The determining factors in getting a seat in shul during the High Holidays should also allow for those of us who are deaf and need a clear line of sight, just like those who need to sit in wheelchairs have spaces allotted for them as well.
At this time of year, when we ask God to have compassion on us, to forgive us, and to write and seal us for a good year, have compassion on me, and those like me who are deaf. Let it be written and sealed in our shul, that certain seats be offered to those with disabilities first, before being offered to someone who has been born whole.
There are many other ways in which being a deaf woman has disadvantaged me but I am not going to bother you with all of that. It is enough for you to understand my difficulty with this particular situation and make it a problem of the past and not a continuing obstacle to my full participation in shul during the High Holidays.
May we all merit a Shana Tova, filled will all the blessings our hearts desire.
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