ronnie kaufmann and her grandson

A broken heart, a new beginning, and a support group for hearing loss

By Clint McLean

A broken heart landed Ronnie Kaufman in Israel and at the resolute age of 65, the retired speech-language pathologist with hearing loss was starting over. But Ronnie is no stranger to second acts. Or to third or fourth ones. And each time she resets, she takes two steps forward for each step back. The move from the US to the Middle East was no exception. 

Ronnie was raised in Queens, New York. She started college there in 1969 but dropped out two years later and moved to San Francisco for a fresh start. She married her high school sweetheart and became a mother a year later. The marriage didn’t last, and she raised her son mainly on her own. For two decades, she worked as a marketing rep in California before leaving the security of her career to return to New York. At age 40, Ronnie went back to school where she graduated with honors in Speech-Language Pathology. From there she worked in schools and hospitals, helping people with communication difficulties until her own hearing loss developed to a degree that she couldn’t work anymore. Now, she’s using her knowledge and experience with communication challenges to lead a support group for people with hearing loss in Jerusalem. 

Ronnie’s son, Joshua, moved to Israel from the US with his wife and three children in 2012. “This event nearly killed me,” Ronnie says from her high-rise apartment overlooking HaMesila park in Jerusalem’s southwest. “I developed paroxysmal AFib which could strike any time, any place. I was often rushed to the emergency room. I felt as if my world had been torn apart. I didn't see them for four years because I couldn't or wouldn't fly. I lived on antiarrythmia meds, beta blockers, and anti-depressants. I almost died in 2013 from an AFib episode and developed PTSD as a result.”

The obstacles weren’t enough to keep Ronnie away from her son and in 2016 she sold her home and moved to Israel to be with him and his family. “I didn’t want to die alone,” she says. “And I wanted to see my grandchildren and help my son raise them.”

But while the move solved one problem, it introduced another. In the US, Ronnie ached for her family. Now, in Israel, she had them, but felt isolated from the world around her. 

“It was very difficult for me living here,” she says. “I can’t learn Hebrew because I can’t hear it well enough and I often can’t understand people speaking English with Hebrew accents. Part of what happens when you become deaf is you get isolated. I was happier being by myself because it was frustrating going out in the world trying to communicate with people. It’s exhausting.”

Ronnie soon discovered there was little to no support for people like her — English speakers with hearing loss. But rather than letting it be another weight that made navigating the city harder, Ronnie did something about it. In February 2017, six months after stepping off the plane at Ben Gurion airport, she founded a hearing loss support group for English speakers.

The meetings are held in a small room of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel which helps new immigrants navigate healthcare, housing, language, and the bureaucracy of their new home. The space is simple. There are no smart boards or snack machines, just some plastic chairs and a kettle for making tea. “It's small potatoes,” Ronnie says plainly, “but it's a vital volunteer organization that helps new immigrants like me get settled.”

The twenty or so people who attend the meetings are mostly regulars who had nowhere to turn for hearing care help and advice before Ronnie arrived. The group discusses topics like: What to expect from an audiologist, how hearing loss affects relationships, and auditory fatigue. Sometimes special guests like Dvora Gordon, Head Audiologist at Hadassah hospital, present at the meetings as well. Her most recent offering, “What to expect from your audiologist,” was enthusiastically received.

Ronnie also shares useful resources with the group — like Ida's tools for people with hearing loss. She recently explained the benefits of the Dilemma Game to attendees. The digital cards present communication difficulties and then offer suggestions for how they could be dealt with and give space for users to create their own solutions. 

Presentations like these teach the group how to partner with their hearing care professionals, inform them about technologies, and empower them to better manage their hearing loss.

Dr. Gary Heller, a retired teacher who wears a cochlear implant and a hearing aid, joins Ronnie’s meetings often and considers them a social lifeline as well as hearing and communication support. “This group is very important,” he says. “Firstly, because people who have hearing impairments find it very difficult to achieve fluency in a new language after a certain age. Secondly, the healthcare system is completely unfamiliar to most of the participants, especially rights, obligations, and availability of things like assistive listening devices. Thirdly, many people with hearing impairments are socially isolated, especially at the ages of most of the group members. So, this group gives members an opportunity to socialize with like-minded people who are in a similar situation.”

The group has become a place where friendships develop, people feel less lonely, and a sense of community thrives. Ironic considering it was loneliness that drove Ronnie to relocate to Israel and that welcomed her upon arrival.

Now, thanks to the volunteer efforts of the retired SLP, dozens of people in Jerusalem have a newly found sense of belonging and help managing hearing loss. Ronnie’s experience helping people to manage communication difficulties as an SLP and her daily trials with hearing loss have helped her to successfully start over again and lift those around her in the process. Two steps forward.

Joshua and his wife now have five children pulling at Ronnie’s heartstrings. As well as being able to provide unlimited amounts of love to each, Ronnie’s heart is beating as true as a metronome after having surgery for her irregular heartbeat while living in Israel. She hasn’t had any AFib attacks since.

“You know, don’t feel sorry for me.” Ronnie instructs. “Hearing loss gave me the opportunity to relocate to Israel to be near my son and my grandchildren. And to start this support group to help other people. I was always in a helping profession and now I’m able to help people in a different capacity. Hearing loss has given me the opportunity to help others, and that gives me great satisfaction.”

If you are leading a support group for hearing loss, visit our Group AR resource for advice and materials.