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A Sign of the Times: Interpreting Judaism

July 28, 2005 By:
Jared Shelly, JE Feature
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Karen Staller
When she was 11 years old, Karen Staller often fell asleep when her mother dragged her to the movies. Most of the films they attended were geared toward adults; 1977's "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" was no exception.

But upon leaving the theater after that particular picture, an excited Staller told her mother that she knew what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. Her mother apparently grew concerned; after all, "Goodbar" was replete with sex, drugs and extreme violence. But Karen happened to be enthralled by the film's much tamer scenes, where Diane Keaton's character uses sign language to communicate with deaf children.

"At 11, you change your mind a million times" about your future, said the now 39-year-old Staller. "I never changed my mind."

Even though there is no deafness in her family, Staller fulfilled her childhood dream, and is certified as a sign-language interpreter with the Deaf-Hearing Communication Centre Inc. She works with deaf children full-time for the School District of Philadelphia in their Deaf and Hard of Hearing program, and gets a lot of freelance work interpreting for individual clients.

'It's Desperately Needed'
She'll go along to a college class or a doctor's appointment, and relay messages to her companion in sign language. She even interpreted once for fans interacting with William Shatner at a "Star Trek" convention.

And she has just recently branched out into interpreting prayer services at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington.

"I'm glad Beth Am is providing this. It's desperately needed," said Staller.

She interprets on the first Shabbat of every month, and does a second Shabbat service at another point in the month. She also works on all major holidays.

She mainly interprets the services for Heather and Larry Goldstein, a deaf couple in their mid-30s, but has recently begun noticing other deaf people attending her services.

"The Goldsteins copy my signs during things like the Shema and the Aleinu," said the interpreter. "It lets them participate."

Old York Road-Temple Beth Am, a Reform synagogue, also reaches out to the wider deaf community, providing a special logo on its calendar to signify that Staller will be interpreting that particular service.

"They accommodate us at every turn. I need the order of a service ahead of time, so they e-mail it to me," said Staller, as she took a break from punching the keys on her "Sidekick," a cell phone with instant-messaging and Internet capabilities, which remains an integral tool for her to keep up with the deaf community.

"Most of the people who use the 'Sidekick' are deaf," related Staller. "Everyone I know has one."

For Staller, spending a lot of time in a synagogue has proved to be more than just another freelance job. After growing up in a non-observant family, she revealed that she has become a more active Jew who now "loves going to services."

She is also teaching her two young children to be religious, lighting candles every Friday night, as well as attending Tot Shabbat services once a month.

And to top all that, she added: "I'm looking for cool mezuzot for each room of my house."

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