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During the Service or Event

“When I was a child, my father was the president of our small congregation and my mother was also super active. That means that we never missed a minute of services. I’m dyslexic and have ADHD, so I was extremely late in learning to read. Hence, for many years, following the service was harder for me. Indeed, even though today I have a degree in Judaic Studies and have been to Israel literally dozens of times, I still have a hard time reading Hebrew. But the meaning and the music of the High Holidays really connects to me very deeply. I always have liked to sing the prayers with the congregation. I read the lips of the rabbi or cantor to sing. Thus, I generally don’t read the words to participate. And Kol Nidre moves me intensely. Like every year, I’ll listen to the Barbara Streisand and Neil Diamond versions several times over the holiday period.

“While I’m already enjoying Shabbat services from congregations all over via JewishLive on Facebook or Zoom, I’ll miss being in person with a congregation for the High Holidays. But we’ll make the best of it. I think I will still dress in white on Yom Kippur. I’ll ask my husband to connect the computer to a larger screen and good sound system so we can get the best version we can of music, as well as the feel of the service. Of course, it’s a bit surreal to have a service over the internet. But our family will be safe, and so will all the other people who pray that way. And when we go through the prayers on ‘who shall live and who shall die,’ I know I will have quite a lot to think about this year.”

– Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, President, RespectAbillity

Ensuring as Many People as Possible Can Participate

Before we jump into technical specifics, it is important to remember a few best practices that make all your events more accessible. First, if you are speaking or presenting in English, and you drop in a term in Hebrew or Yiddish, provide the English translation. Not only people with disabilities, but many others, do not understand all Hebrew terms.

Also, consider the language used as an invitation to a traditionally standing prayer. There are many potential modifications, from “please rise if you are able” to “please rise in body or spirit.” While a full exploration of the pros and cons of each option is outside of the scope of this guide, making some intentional change to your language shows a type of inclusive mindset, by letting people know they are under your consideration.

Even before the pandemic, a RespectAbility survey showed that only 14 percent of respondents’ organizations use video captions to ensure people who are deaf or hard of hearing can use the content. Captioning services are easy to use; yet 86 percent of respondents were not even attempting to take advantage of such tools. Captioning services ensure that as many individuals as possible can participate.

Many high holiday services tend to include multiple speakers, including multiple clergy, an appeal from the synagogue president, and/or any number of other speakers. Whenever there are going to be multiple voices, the best practice is for each person to say their name every time they begin speaking. This helps people with a variety of disabilities, including people who are blind or have low vision, as well as individuals with cognitive disabilities, to know who is speaking.

Different formats for your services will present different organizational needs. For events where everyone is visible and can participate, every individual not speaking should be on mute and a moderator will be needed to manage taking turns. A noisy meeting environment increases listening processing and fatigue for everyone; keeping yourself on mute when not speaking helps all participants. On the other hand, a moderator should be alert to a speaker that is too soft to be heard, encouraging them to speak up.

Are you planning to have interactive portions to your holiday celebration? It is important to give everyone options as to how they share their thoughts. For people who cannot or would rather not speak, the moderator or host can read notes made in the chat box out loud to everyone. The moderator or host should announce this as an option for people to do. They, or a designated staff or board member, will then need to check the chat box so comments are not overlooked or forgotten.

To help people with different types of disabilities, when someone is not speaking, they also should turn their video off. The host of a Zoom meeting can unilaterally turn off the video of participants. The sign language interpreter’s video should always be on.

If there is a PowerPoint or other visual aid, then the speaker should describe what is on screen to accommodate individuals who are blind or have low vision. Even if you made certain that the PowerPoint had appropriate accessibility features for screen readers, people will not be able to use screen readers for the PowerPoint being shown on screen. Therefore, the speaker should describe what is on screen before delivering any other talking points. If you are using a virtual Siddur or Machzor, and you will be sharing it on your screen, it is especially important to send a copy to any congregant that requests it in advance, as screen readers and other accessibility technology simply will not be able to follow. Ensuring accessibility during the planning process of an event is important; if you are planning to post a video of the event after the fact, you may need to ensure accessibility during the actual event, even if no live participants request one. If video clips that do not include audio description are played during a presentation, the speaker should explain the visuals before the video begins. This is important not only for participants who are blind but also because it is unlikely that audio description, which is narration describing what viewers see on screen, can be added after-the-fact to a fast-paced virtual meeting. We recommend this great guide to audio description, including examples.

One should note that there are pros and cons to screen sharing, from an accessibility perspective. On the one hand, a shared screen, especially in a prayer environment, is a way to make the text of the service available. On the other hand, a shared screen makes it far more difficult to see an ASL interpreter on Zoom and on Facebook Live. If sharing a screen on Zoom while participants follow along on Facebook, the ASL interpreter’s video must be spotlighted in order to see the interpreter versus the individual speaking.

Whatever format you choose for your event, you should have a very clear plan of when there will be screen sharing and when audience participation is expected. Having this schedule will keep everything operating smoothly but also is critical so people with disabilities who need to make special plans for these parts of the event, as well as interpreters, can plan appropriately.

Ensuring Your Space is Physically Accessible

COVID has forced the Jewish community to regroup and rethink how it conducts just about every activity. Remote work, an explosion of online programming and religious offerings and the wide adoption of technology has made Jewish life more accessible and welcoming to many people, including Jews with disabilities.

There are some free, easy steps to take that can make an immediate difference. Keep interior spaces neat and organized so people with mobility disabilities can navigate through the space. There should be a five-foot circle or T-shaped area within the space for people using a wheelchair to reverse direction. Floors should be free of potential tripping hazards or barriers so individuals with visual disabilities or those using walkers or wheelchairs can move around and find a place to sit. Items can often be moved or rearranged to increase access for everyone.

When hosting an event, ensure that seating is available during all parts of the event, including during parts when most people would typically stand. Space for wheelchairs should be distributed throughout the venue with companion seats nearby. Have a plan in place to support those who may have difficulty with plates and utensils. Consider having assistive listening devices readily available. It is a best practice to ask guests what accommodations they may need to fully participate prior to the event.

If you have the budget to allocate minimal additional resources, a little can go a long way in terms of ensuring your interior space is accessible. Adjust lighting to facilitate lip reading and reading in general. Lighting should be even, glare-free and bright throughout the building. It can be inexpensive to lessen abrupt changes in floor surfacing. The carpet should be no more than a half-inch high and edges should be securely attached. Light switches could be moved low enough to be within reach of people using wheelchairs and people of short stature. Adding adjustable workspaces for those who use wheelchairs or scooters or those who need to sit while working also can be beneficial. Switch to unscented/hypoallergenic cleaning products, candles, soaps and air fresheners for guests with various chemical sensitivities.

Thinking bigger, does your building meet ADA code? Install automatic door openers so people with physical disabilities can open interior doors without assistance. The criteria are that the door handle is not higher than 48 inches, and the maximum force needed to open the door is five pounds. Have a route of travel that is at least 36 inches wide without any stairs throughout the building for a person using a wheelchair. Ensure that all staircases have continuous rails. Have an elevator or lift if stairs are unavoidable. Ensure that there are accessible restrooms and wheelchair-accessible water fountains.

Live Captioning

The gold standard of captioning is Communication Access Realtime Translation or CART, where a live transcriber types what is spoken in real time. RespectAbility currently uses Zoom for our webinars (including prior to this current climate), which is screen reader accessible. RespectAbility events always include CART. Other platforms that support live captioning include: Adobe Connect and Webex. This involves utilizing a third-party closed captioning service. Thankfully, there is no shortage of companies that provide this relatively inexpensive service. A full list can be found in Appendix A: Live Captioning Companies.

In addition to live CART, technology is rapidly catching up and now a handful of high-quality automatic speech recognition (ASR) options exist. For example, Zoom has enabled free automatic captioning as an option for all meetings and webinars. Automatic options are not particularly helpful for services, as they are not designed for Hebrew text. For more about this technology in a context other than the High Holidays, see RespectAbility’s Accessible Virtual Events toolkit.

Live captioning is better able to help access Hebrew, when the captioners are provided with the text, including any Hebrew words in transliteration, beforehand. As such, live captioners should be given the script and text for the service in advance, including transliteration of Hebrew, and a clear indication of when that transliteration should be in the captions. This also helps for names and technical terms. In addition, unlike ASR, a live captioner can fill in the gaps with contextual clues if the audio is poor and let participants know if they are speaking too softly or too many people are speaking at once.

Any platform can utilize the services of a live captioner with a third-party captioning service. With this option, captions are displayed in a separate browser window. Services such as StreamText and 1CapApp also allow for customization in how an individual views the captioning. Because different users of captions have different preferences in this regard, having a flexibility to choose either by window or in program is particularly good.

To learn more about what each platform accommodates, we recommend viewing this chart compiled by

If you would like to provide these services for an in person event, there are in person CART transcribers who will type captions to appear on a monitor or TV screen present in your physical space.

CART, ASR and non-embedded captions can be useful for a few different audiences, including people who are D/deaf/Hard of Hearing, those with learning disabilities who have an easier time comprehending the written word, and people whose first language is not English. CART greatly eases the cognitive load of a video meeting or event for many people.

It is important to note that captioning solutions may not always work best for the D/deaf/Hard of Hearing viewer. For example, those that participate via mobile devices, or through small screens, may find it difficult to read the small-sized captions, particularly for a lengthy period. Some platforms allow users to increase the size of their captioning, which may or may not be helpful in addressing this issue. It is helpful to let people who are D/deaf/Hard of Hearing know that it will improve their experience if they join the service online through a device with a larger screen. Still, this is true of all people, whether they have a disability or not, as joining an online service when there is a large screen is much better than on a phone. Also, while live captioning may work well for forward-facing events, where participants are mainly watching, but it must be noted that if the Deaf/Hard of Hearing individual does not use voice, in order to chime in or comment, they will be forced to use the platform’s text chat function.

American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreters

For those who are unfamiliar with American Sign Language (ASL), there is a potential misconception that it is simply a visual depiction of English. It is actually, however a, complete language, and so like any other language, it can be translated to and from English, but that does not make it identical, in either idiom or structure. It is in fact, linguistically and grammatically distinct. For many speakers, it is their native language, and they may find it far better to watch a service if ASL interpretation is available, even if there are captions.

Further, for meetings and events where participants are actively engaged in interactive discussions, some D/deaf/Hard of Hearing individuals would prefer having an ASL interpreter over live captioning to ensure their active participation. In addition, for events that involve complex subject matter, technical terms or industry-specific terminology, viewers will find that automatic captioning, and in some cases, even live-captioning solutions, struggle to maintain a reasonable minimum level of quality and legibility for the user. Appendix B has a list of interpreter services. Some provide Zoom interpretation. Whomever is organizing your services needs to email the log-in information to the interpreter with a link or an invite to the room. They also should share names of speakers and any PowerPoints ahead of time so the interpreters can become familiar with the materials.

Specifically for Zoom, when utilizing ASL interpreters, it is important to never spotlight a video other than an ASL interpreter when sharing a screen. Doing so leads to all attendees only seeing the video of the active speakers. This means that attendees are unable to view the ASL interpreter’s video. Instead, ensure that the meeting or event is set to gallery view. When screen sharing, ensure the video is set to side-by-side view; otherwise, participants will only see the screen share and the person speaking and not the ASL interpreter.

When hiring a sign language interpreter for a service, do so as early as possible as there is a shortage of ASL interpreters who are ready to do high holiday services. Two weeks minimum is recommended. Be sure to confirm that the sign language interpreter is certified and experienced, and let the interpreter know if the event will be shared publicly. A certified interpreter is someone who has met a minimum of hours of training on a regular basis and abides by a code of professional conduct. This is important to ensure that your communications, and the conduct of the interpreter(s), meet the appropriate quality, ethical and professional standards. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) maintains a searchable directory of interpreters and their certification status. Please be aware that interpreting a live event is very physically labor-intensive and tiring. For something as long as a high holiday service or anything longer than one hour, you will likely need to hire interpreters in pairs to relieve each other. In fact it is  an industry standard that an ASL “team” of a minimum of two interpreters is required for any event two hours or longer and most certified interpreters will require a “team” for any event one hour and longer.

Hebrew Text With Captioners and ASL Interpreters

In a perfect world, it would be great if every captioner were skilled with Hebrew, English and transliteration, and every ASL interpreter were truly trilingual in Hebrew, English and ASL. Such abilities, however, are very rare, and would be difficult to find in general, and particularly difficult with the demand around the High Holidays. Hence, as noted above, you want to begin your search for the best possible support team as soon as possible.

That being said, your captioner or interpreter should at the very least be provided the complete run of the service, i.e., which texts will be said when, paired with each Hebrew text and its translation, and transliteration. The translation will allow interpreters who do not themselves understand Hebrew to translate the prayer or song directly from the provided English into ASL. For the captioner, the transliteration will serve a dual feature, allowing a non-Hebrew speaker to follow the text while giving a captioner the appropriate text to put in the captions. Whichever way you choose, the most important thing is that you have a detailed discussion with your captioner and/or interpreter before the service and agree on an approach. Many captioners will want an electronic version of the service, especially transliteration, so they can cut and paste transliterations into the text at the appropriate times. Indeed, this is something you will likely want to practice in advance of a high holiday service if you are doing it for the first time.

Two Sides of the Same Coin: Maximizing Your Investment and Acknowledging Cost

Obviously, there is a financial investment involved with providing these services. The cost can range from 80-125 dollars per hour for captioning and 160-200 dollars per hour (80-100 dollars per hour per person) for a team of two ASL interpreters. This is a relatively small amount of money to enable many people, including seniors who may have no problem following a service in person but need captions for it to work online, to be included.

Here are a couple of thoughts worth considering. You may want to have a value-based discussion with your board or speak to a few key donors who may be willing to make a gift if they know it will allow other members of the community to access spiritual life. Many will instantly understand that during COVID-19, many seniors and people with disabilities essentially are forced into even further isolation. While they may be able to hear well enough to follow and enjoy a service in person, they will not be able to connect to the service well if they are watching it onscreen in isolation and do not have access to captions.

That said, we recognize that some synagogues may be unable to afford these accommodations. In that situation, Jewish law tells us that it is incumbent upon our community to help meet the spiritual needs of our fellow community members. This year, that might mean finding out about another synagogue that is able to provide full accessibility and referring people to those resources.

For those synagogues that have made the investment in accessibility, it is vital to let your community and others know so those who need accessibility have a place to pray. Share it with your colleagues, and put it on your website. Consider creating a webpage in your local community of which synagogues will have which accommodations at what time. Please also alert us so we can share your accessible offerings via our website and social media as many people look to RespectAbility for such resources. Indeed, make sure your accessibility is celebrated and used.

For those unable to provide this accessibility this year, we urge you not to forget the feeling of regret that ought to come from having to send a member of our synagogue family elsewhere to meet their spiritual needs. Let that regret push the community to plan, and fundraise over the next year, so that whether High Holidays are virtual or in person, your congregation will be able to welcome its entire community.

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