Baltimore Hebrew Congregation embraces closed captioning

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Baltimore Hebrew Congregation
Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (Photo by Jo Ann Windman)

The transition from attending normal worship services to livestreaming them from a distance has not been easy for everyone, with some congregants having difficulty understanding a rabbi’s words when broadcast through a Zoom session. In response, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation went the extra mile to provide captioning for its High Holiday services this year.

Responding to requests to make the virtual services more accessible, BHC staff began holding meetings with that goal in mind, said Jillian Manko, BHC’s director of engagement.


Manko recalled that for one congregant, “it was hard for her to understand everything that was being said, especially on Zoom. Sometimes, the video, somebody can be speaking and the video is on somebody else’s face, so it was hard for her to read lips, to understand what was going on during services.”

When the High Holidays began approaching, along with discussions of paywalls and logins came the question of how to keep services accessible for those who have difficulty hearing. While in past years BHC would normally have its services conveyed through sign language, staff were unsure of how to accomplish that this year. Manko said that the synagogue has been using the service Hamilton Relay to caption its live services, such as for Shabbat, but she acknowledged that the program has difficulty correctly captioning words in Hebrew.

Manko decided to reach out to the Macks Center for Jewish Education, which helped put her in touch with Rachel Chabin, an Orthodox, New York-based captioner who was “trying to find ways to make all services more accessible for everyone.”

Knowing that BHC’s High Holiday services would be recorded prior to the actual High Holidays, Manko recognized that this would be a great opportunity to employ a professional captioner like Chabin.

“When Jillian reached out to me and said that they are looking for someone to offer captions for the High Holiday services, I was thrilled to try to participate.” Chabin said. “It was a bit of a learning experience for me, because I had never done post-recording captioning, so it was great to explore that and kind of learn a new trick.”

“She was amazing,” Manko said of Chabin’s work. “As the videos were coming probably a week before Rosh Hashanah, every day I was sending her a new service, and she completed them just in time.”

Chabin did almost all of the captioning herself, Manko said, except for the final Yom Kippur service, which Manko personally handled.

Manko said that the captioned services received between 50 to 220 views per service, which she noted was clear proof of how the captioned services benefited the community.

Manko believes closed captioning can be for more than just those who are hard of hearing.

“Sometimes, when we are virtual, the microphones may not be picking up the sound,” Manko said. “I know when I’m watching TV, I usually have closed captioning on, because it makes it easier for me to understand.”

Chabin agreed, saying that, in addition to the profoundly deaf, closed captioning helps those who are hard of hearing, those with auditory processing disorders and those who do not speak English as their first language.

“It’s massively important, especially now that everything takes place online,” Chabin said. “That sort of has alerted more organizations and people who … just didn’t realize how important this was.”

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