B’nai Israel Becomes First Synagogue in North America To Add New Technology for Individuals With Visual Impairments

RightHear Worker at B’nai Israel. Photo Courtesy of B’nai Israel.

In conjunction with Jewish Disability and Inclusion Month, B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville implemented new technology earlier this month that was developed by an Israeli company, RightHear, which is meant to aid those who are blind or low vision, thereby becoming the first synagogue in North America to do so.

The installment of the technology at B’nai Israel is the result of a partnership between the synagogue and RightHear, an Israeli startup that opened an office in Rockville around a year ago and which has a highly successful track record of implementing their product in Israel.

The technology network consists of sensors placed around a building that can be scanned by a smart device, such as a phone, which then uses a free app that audibly reads out information about the surrounding area to help the user orient themselves.

“Here’s two facts that I’m always happy to share. In the U.S., you can find Braille signs everywhere you go. Everywhere. From Rockville, Maryland, all the way to Los Angeles, Chicago, it doesn’t matter … The first fact is that [there are] over 100 million Braille signs [in the U.S.]. The second fact is what’s interesting. And the second fact is that over 90% of the blind community cannot read Braille,” said Idan Meir, CEO of RightHear.

That statistic is a major reason why RightHear is so important, according to Meir, as there is plenty of infrastructure for people who have difficulty seeing, but it’s highly underutilized and therefore not very useful.

“It is 2024 and all we have out there is Braille signs for about 8 million people who are blind or visually impaired,” Meir said.

Adding this resource is a big incentive for B’nai Israel, and the congregation was very excited to be able to incorporate it into its building. The technology gives them a way to make the community more easily accessible to congregants with disabilities and the broader community as they’re welcomed into the congregational space.

“I’d say that B’nai Israel has a history of being committed to disability inclusion, making sure that the building and the programs that we offer and the ways in which we offer those things are accessible to people of all different backgrounds and abilities,” said B’nai Israel Associate Rabbi Mitchell Berkowitz, who played a role in bringing RightHear to the congregation.

Meir added that their product has useful applications beyond people with issues seeing, as it could help people with dyslexia or those with a language barrier. The product supports 26 languages and can help translate signs or other information for those who can see all the signs perfectly but can’t read them.

All these applications provide major benefits for the congregation as they work toward improving inclusiveness within the community, while simultaneously being able to provide a great proof of concept for other synagogues or businesses about the effectiveness of the product.

Meir said that one of the challenges in opening an office in another country was a lack of references from people in the area using the product, and he praised B’nai Israel for being willing to take the chance.

“It’s a leap of faith and I’d say I think it’s important to emphasize that I believe these references are what will help us do the next step [in expanding operations]. So, we’re very appreciative of this collaboration with them,” Meir said.

The collaboration worked out well due to both organizations being located in the same area, having a connection to Israel and having shared values on improving inclusiveness and accessibility within communities.

“We’re honored to be one of the places where to a degree it’s being tested … this technology exists and is utilized outside of synagogues and is utilized across places in Israel. But to be a synagogue that’s using it for the first time – perhaps the first in North America – gives us an opportunity to work directly with those who are working on the technology right here, trying to figure out what’s the best way to maximize its use in the setting of a Jewish community and in a synagogue,” Berkowitz said.

Berkowitz added that B’nai Israel is still working on getting the word out to people about the technology and encouraging them to download the app. He said that once more people are informed about the opportunity, they’ll be able to see the full impact that the technology could have.

As for RightHear, this partnership is one of the first steps in the company bringing its product to more areas of the Maryland community and the greater Jewish community as well.

Meir said that he is having several meetings with other organizations and that he hopes to use the company’s work in the area as a model for how they could apply their product across the larger community.

“It’s really a unique opportunity and one that I hope that other synagogues and Jewish institutions in the community will explore,” Berkowitz said.

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