New device helps hearing-impaired stay connected in synagogue

If you think that Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo has nothing in common with Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral in England, you might want to think — or better yet, listen — again.

This summer, Beth El became the first synagogue in the region to install a hearing loop, an assistive listening system that is ubiquitous in both public and private buildings in the U.K. and other European countries.

Zara Jaffe, a vital 85-year-old member and former Beth El president, worked for two years to bring a hearing loop to her synagogue. She and her 95-year-old husband, Josh, had stopped going to services eight years ago. Not only do they both wear hearing aids, but Josh is completely deaf in one ear and has extremely limited hearing in the other.

Josh and Zara Jaffe

“We would sit there and see that people were speaking, and we could hear some sound, but we couldn’t understand what they were saying,” he said.

When Zara told relatives and friends in her native England about the situation, they were incredulous that there was no hearing loop installed at Beth El. In their country, as in others in Europe, hearing loops are everywhere. All 11,500 post office branches in Britain, all London cabs and all London Underground ticket booths are equipped with them. Although hearing loops can be found in the United States. the technology has not caught on as quickly and as widely here.

The Jaffes, residents of Hillsborough, conducted some initial research on hearing loops and gained support for the project from Beth El executive director Blair Brown and Rabbi Dennis Eisner.

They learned that equipping the temple’s sanctuary, social hall and meeting room would involve running a special, inconspicuous wire around the perimeter of the spaces. That wire is connected to the microphone on the bimah (or from wherever someone is speaking), runs through an amplifier midway through the loop and travels back to the microphone.

A magnetic signal transmitted from the wire loop sends sound directly into a person’s hearing aid. The listener hears more clearly than they would if they were just wearing the hearing aid, because the direct magnetic transmission eliminates background noise.

Most hearing aids worn today have a telecoil (T-coil) setting — to which they must be set to work with a hearing loop. However, stand-alone pocket-size devices that can be connected to personal earphones or ear buds can be used, as well.

Beth El did a test run of its hearing loop, manufactured by Ampetronic in the U.K. and distributed and installed by a Southern California tech company, before committing to the $13,000 purchase.

Zara Jaffe put together a group of seniors to try it out. All of them were thrilled with what they heard.

“For the first time in years, I understood every syllable that came from the pulpit,” said her husband, Josh. “It was amazing. It used to be that I heard just a jumble of sound.”

A graphic shows how the hearing loop works in congregation. image/courtesy of ampetronic

Fellow Beth El member, Fred Austin, agreed that it was “fantastic.”

“I wear hearing aids in both ears, so it makes a big difference for me,” said Austin, who, like the Jaffes, had stopped going to synagogue. Now that he will be able to hear what’s going on, “I’ll be going more often,” he said.

Although Beth El is the first synagogue in the Bay Area to install a hearing loop, other congregations have also been grappling with the difficulties faced by hearing-impaired members.

Yvonne Boxerman, executive director at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, the first local synagogue to install an assistive listening system back in 1984, reported that its infrared devices are used less frequently now than when they were first introduced.

Rabbi George Gittleman at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa has noticed the same thing. His synagogue is looking into replacing its infrared system, which works inconsistently, and invested $60,000 in improving the acoustics in its new building. The congregation is still not satisfied, and Gittelman said that he and others there would be open to learning more about a hearing loop and Peninsula Temple Beth El’s experience with it.

“One of the most frustrating, ongoing struggles is educating people about hearing challenges,” said Gittleman.

One thing Zara Jaffe especially likes is that people don’t need any special equipment to use a hearing loop, which allows them to blend right into the community. “No one needs to declare they are hard of hearing,” she said.

Brown, Beth El’s executive director, thinks a hearing loop is a great way to serve the seniors in the congregation and people who have started to drift away from the community because of hearing issues.

Gittleman likes to remind young people that hearing loss, although it affects mainly seniors, can start as early as middle age. It’s a community-wide concern, and Brown feels that “if it [a hearing loop] brings one more person to — or back to — shul, then it is worth it.”

Zara and Josh Jaffe will be celebrating their 65th wedding anniversary at a Shabbat service at Beth El this fall. In their honor, their children and grandchildren will be reading Torah and helping to lead the service, as they do each year. But this time, it will be the first time in a long time that the Jaffes will be able to clearly hear every word from the bimah.

Renee Ghert-Zand
Renee Ghert-Zand

Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist. She made aliyah from Palo Alto with her family in June 2014.