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The Sound of Survival: A Look at Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf

Founded in 1960, Beth Solomon is the world’s first synagogue for the deaf. But their heyday was so long ago that few of the original congregation survives; and attendance has declined. 

Michael Thal is spending his first year as president of Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf (TBS) scouring the landscape for anyone interested in participating in Shabbat services. 

Founded in 1960, Beth Solomon is the world’s first synagogue for the deaf. But their heyday was so long ago that few of the original congregation survives; and attendance has declined. 

The aging of the congregation is not the only reason for the decline (although Thal does estimate the members’ average age is 84). The deaf community used to be more tight-knit, Thal said. But with advancements in technology, “it has kind of dispersed.” 

Last January, when Thal succeeded Joseph Slotnick, who served as president for three decades, he brought a stark message: “TBS is slowly dying,” he said. “I can’t allow a jewel in the necklace of Judaism to fail.”

Thal faces a tough challenge, but he is determined to build back a committed community.   “When they were in their 20s and 30s, they went to shul in Arleta in the North Valley,” he said. “They had a building. They educated their kids there. But, unavoidably, everyone got older and moved on.”

Sixty-two years ago, TBS presented a youthful, upbeat setting. Take founders Alvin and Marge Klugman. Alvin went deaf at age five, and Marge lost her hearing at 16, when she also lost part of her sight.  They were two of the pillars of TBS’ earliest days and were central to the community for 40 years. 

Libby Green, whose late husband Arthur was related to the Klugmans, said, “They were always leaders. [They were] creative, intelligent people. Nothing ever stood in their way.”  

Today, TBS’ services are in Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge. Attracting a minyan is rare, but Rabbi Warren Levy proceeds with services while Jan Seeley does sign language for the congregation. 

“[The] last time we got together, [which was] to celebrate our 62nd anniversary, quite a few people were there, about 30,” said Thal. “Normally, though, the number is more like six, 10 or 12, [and] mostly women.”

Unlike many deaf persons who lost their hearing early in life, Thal lost his at the height of his career in 1993, when he was 44 years old. He was a member of Temple Judea, a Reform synagogue in Tarzana, for 25 years. Even after losing most of his hearing and being forced out of a tenured sixth grade teaching position, he was determined to retain his temple membership.  

“Although I couldn’t understand a word of the rabbi’s sermons and I was incapable of following a service, I stayed,” Thal said. “My hearing daughters benefitted from the shul’s educational program and bat mitzvah lessons.” 

He confessed later that throughout those personally quiet years, he felt like an outsider.  “I was clueless about the activities going on in the room where I sat,” he said. Eventually, Thal recalled, Temple Judea offered headphones for its hard-of-hearing members. “But when one ear is deaf and the other severely impaired, headphones don’t cut it,” he said.

One Shabbat, Jan Seeley, an ASL interpreter, came to services at Temple Judea.  “She positioned herself near the bimah and signed for those with hearing issues,” Thal said. “Afterwards, I introduced myself and my wife Jila to Jan. She told us about Temple Beth Solomon, which was renting space for services at Temple Judea.” 

In the more than two decades since his retirement, Thal taught himself to be a writer. He has written six books. The most recent, “The Lip Reader,” was inspired by Jila. “But I changed everything,” he said. “We were together 16 years, and during that time, she told me stories about growing up deaf and Jewish in Iraq.” 

After Jila died, he sat shiva for her for a year. “When I went to the unveiling, I said to myself, ‘I have to do something. I am going to bring her back.’ So I took all of the stories she had told me, outlined my book, and it took me four years to write it, with a lot of tears.”

Taking a broader view as temple president, Thal said that “bright spots for deaf Jews are few and far between,” he says. “Why would the People of the Book fail to include deaf members in their fold?”

Frustrated, they go elsewhere.

“Today, I can actually understand the rabbi’s sermons through the help of Jan Seeley’s sign language. And the congregants speak my language. It’s nice.” – Michael Thal

“I joined TBS after my wife’s death to find other deaf Jews and a place to worship where I’d have a shot at understanding what was going on around me,” he said. “I’m glad I did. Today, I can actually understand the rabbi’s sermons through the help of Jan Seeley’s sign language. And the congregants speak my language. It’s nice.”

After TBS’s monthly services, tradition calls for an Oneg Shabbat.

“It’s in a quiet room,” says Thal. “When you walk in, you can hear a pin drop – because everyone is signing.”

While continuing his search for rebuilding membership a person or two at a time, Thal encourages those who know American Sign Language (ASL), or just want to witness how it works, to visit Beth Solomon the second Friday of the month. 

“You will enjoy the intimacy of the service, Rabbi Levy’s insightful sermons and biblical analysis and Jan Seeley’s interpretations,” he said.

Visit TBS’s website at https://www.facebook.com/tbsdeaf for email the president at [email protected].

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