Meet Louis Caplan

Tell us about yourself:

I grew up in a conservative family just outside of New Haven, CT. I was diagnosed as being deaf (moderate to severe) when I was a little over a year old. My mother knew it earlier but had a hard time convincing the doctors. Once I was diagnosed, the doctors said I’d never speak. I came back a few years later talking to them, which shows you should always ask for second or third opinion.

My parents, both being elementary school teachers, would work with me to understand others, often turning their backs to me when speaking, to give me practice in hearing and understanding.

I went to public school through high school. The only accommodation I had was an FM system, which is a microphone my teacher would wear. It would transmit his/her voice directly to my hearing aids, so no matter where they (or I) were in the room, it sounded like they were standing right next to me.

During high school, I learned about the National Technical Institute of the Deaf (NTID) and Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). I went there for a 1-week exploratory program. For the first time, I met many other hard-of-hearing and deaf people like myself. I also found a program that combines my interests in mathematics and computers. As soon as the program was over, I applied to RIT for college and was accepted.

It was at RIT / NTID, surrounded by other Deaf and hard-of-hearing people, that I finally became comfortable with it myself, and stopped saying “I don’t hear well” and instead said “I’m Deaf.”

After I graduated from RIT, I accepted a job with the US Gov’t in Arlington, VA. Thirteen years ago, my agency relocated to Maryland. We were offered the opportunity for the Government to move us if I stayed with the job.  We had been thinking about Baltimore anyway, since we knew several observant Jewish Deaf here, but that clinched the deal, and up we came!

 

How has having a hearing loss influenced your participation and engagement in Jewish life? Can you share specific challenges you’ve encountered in accessing Jewish learning opportunities and services and how you’ve worked to address them?

I try to be involved in various aspects of Jewish life. However, as my hearing deteriorates, it becomes more and more of a challenge. Just talking to people, whether at a kiddush, a wedding, a bar mitzvah, etc., is nearly impossible now. The background noise is incredibly difficult to overcome.

I enjoy learning things. I used to be able to follow Rabbi Silber’s shiurs, discussions, even his recording of MP3 lectures. However, this has become harder as well. I gave up on the MP3 recordings about 8 years ago. Fortunately, our synagogue, Suburban, provides a sign language interpreter on Shabbos, so I’m able to Rabbi Silber’s sermon.

I also enjoyed Rabbi Silber’s Semichas Chaver program. However, again, as my hearing gets worse, I’m understanding less and less, and am depending on class notes when they are provided. And since the Jewish interpreters available in Baltimore are women, and the class is men only, I am not able to get an interpreter (if it would even be covered, interpreting is a job, and interpreters need to be paid for what they are doing!)

I’ve been turning to videos, some of which are captioned. I try to follow videos that aren’t captioned by using the auto captions, however, the quality of auto captions is still subpar and can make following more difficult, plus it isn’t a substitute for live, interactive classes.

 

What advice do you have for organizations looking to improve accessibility and accommodations for individuals with hearing loss, based on your own experiences? What can the Jewish community learn, if anything, from the “secular/work” world?

The most important thing is to get the input of the individuals you are trying to provide support for. I say this based on what happened at my work. Hearing people were deciding how to request interpreters, how to hire them, how the contract should be written, and they even hired an interpreting manager without any input from the deaf community.

The result is that while the interpreting manager is good, she doesn’t have full buy in and trust from the deaf community. This is not to say we should make all the decisions, but since these types of decisions are supposed to enable us to be part of the community, we should at least have a seat at the table and be part of the process.

I am happy to say things are changing in my agency. Deaf people are on the panel for drafting up requirements for the next contract and will hopefully be part of the job panel for the next time an interpreting manager is hired.

 

As someone deeply involved in your synagogue, can you discuss the importance of fostering a sense of belonging and community for individuals with hearing loss and any initiatives you’ve been part of to achieve this goal?

I’ll start with something I learned from Rabbi Silber and its real life application. Around Purim, we read about remembering the nation of Amalek and what they did to us when we left Egypt, killing those at the rear, who were the weaker, wearier members of the nation.

Why do we remember them? Because those who were weaker members shouldn’t have been at the back of the Jewish people, they should have been in the middle, surrounded on all sides.

Now this isn’t to say that Deaf people are weak. However, I have witnessed many Jewish Deaf people (including myself) being proselytized to, and it’s a heavy push. The groups such as Jews for Jesus, Southern Baptist, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others have many deaf missionaries and deaf pastors.

So, when you look at being one or two people in a Jewish congregation, but not feeling included, vs. this group of deaf people who are overly welcoming to you, it can be tough to keep on the pathway of Orthodox Judaism.

My wife, Leah, and I tried to help with this by hosting two deaf Shabbatons (through Our Way). They bring in people, but only for one Shabbos. We also try to participate in events by the Jewish Connection Network or just from other Jewish Deaf people in the area. It’s a lot of work, and sometimes the results are disheartening. The community and Rabbi Silber are welcoming, but it’s hard when we’re just a small drop in the large bucket of people in the community.

The Associated, through the Macks Jewish Connection Network, has been a big help in providing funding for interpreters for some of the classes and lectures in the community, as well as hosting social activities for Jewish Deaf people to participate in.  It’s a strong start, and hopefully there will be more inclusiveness coming from the community itself.

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