July 20, 2024
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Jerusalem Institute for The Blind Holds Blackout Brunch

H. G. Wells’ story “The Country of the Blind” explores what would happen if a sighted man found himself trapped in a country of blind people, to emphasize society’s attitude to blind people by turning the situation on its head. Recently, the Jerusalem Institute For The Blind sponsored a blackout brunch at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue. Participants were blindfolded, led to their seats, and served a meal which they ate while totally blindfolded. Those who needed the restroom were taken there blindfolded as well. It was quite an experience.

In the past it was commonplace to disenfranchise blind people. Blind people had no means of earning a living. Most blind people were condemned to lives of suffering and could aspire to no personal achievements. Attitudes have changed in the modern age, with the establishment of schools for the blind.

Jerusalem Institute for the Blind sees a world where people with vision loss have equal access and opportunities to excel at school, at work, and in their communities. Each day, we come a step closer to creating that world. Their award-winning programs and services address the most pressing needs of people with vision loss. They change lives—breaking through barriers, challenging misconceptions and expanding possibilities.

Jewish law has exempted blind people from some ritual obligations. However, though the blind person is liberated from responsibility, society is not liberated from the responsibility to care for him. In relation to the blind, we find enormous responsibility on the part of the rabbis, who consistently seek to include the group in the community. One prominent example of this is the question of calling a blind person up to make a blessing over the Torah in the synagogue. The Jewish legal authorities debate the ability of a blind person to bless the Torah, when he clearly cannot read the words. In conclusion, however, many of these authorities agreed that rather than risk losing the human being within the blind person they agreed to rule that he should be called up to the Torah and bless it, just like any other fully obligated person. The decision was made hundreds of years before any mainstream social awakening with regard to the needs of the blind community.

Jewish law or Halacha is not indifferent to changes in the status of people with disabilities in society. At times it creates the change; at others it responds to it. Today we witness significant social alertness to the place of people with disabilities within our society.

In the Torah we learn that the kohanim, the Jewish priests, could not officiate if they had any disabilities.

Rabbi Yochanan taught: A [priest] who is blind in one of his eyes may not bless the congregation. Yet, there was a certain man [like that] in Rabbi Yochanan’s neighborhood who did bless the congregation! That man was known in his own city.

In principle, such a man is disqualified from giving the priestly blessing—but the community has the power to rule otherwise by their actions. This distinction is delineated in the Code of Jewish Law. It is clear that if the community had not reacted to that man with acceptance, the attitude of the halacha would not have changed. If this is the case, the public has enormous power to define the place and standing of blind people in society. Our attitude toward the blind is not decreed from heaven. It rests upon the attention and responsibility of the entire community. If we know to see the good and the light within each one of us, we will succeed in containing every creation, in fixing the place of blind people in the very heart of the community, and in allowing each and every person to take a part in our shared effort to repair the world by the light of the Torah.

The unusually large number of Talmudic sages who were blind probably reflects the wide prevalence of this disability in ancient times. In addition to Bava b. Buta, who was blinded by Herod (BB 4a), mention may be made of Nahum of Gimzo (Ta’an. 21a), Dosa b. Harkinas (Yev. 16a), and R. Joseph and R. Sheshet in Babylon (BK 87a), as well as a number of anonymous blind scholars (cf. Ḥag. 5b; tj Pe’ah, end). Unlike the deaf-mute, the blind person is regarded as fully normal, and most of the legal and religious restrictions placed upon him are due to the limitations caused by his physical disability.

The special conditions in Israel as a country of immigration created the problem that the proportion of blind persons of working age in the state was three times higher than in Anglo-Saxon countries. The Jewish Institute for the Blind in Jerusalem, founded in 1902, cared for the majority of blind children in the country. It included a kindergarten, elementary school where subjects were taught in braille, and boarding facilities for 60-90 pupils attending regular secondary school. It also had a vocational school, industrial training shop, a braille printing press and two houses for mentally or physically handicapped blind adults.

Presently, the institute provides a wide range of activities for education, rehabilitation, health and social welfare for the blind and visually impaired in Jerusalem and throughout the country.

The first institute of its kind in the Jewish world, the JIB still adheres to its original protocol “to help raise a student’s self esteem so that he will not depend on others for help, but will himself become a helpful member of society.”

Despite their limitations, blind and partially sighted people are very intelligent and capable and participate in sports, swimming, skiing and other activities. Some blind people really excel: Poet John Milton, who went blind in mid-life; Helen Keller; Stevie Wonder; Louis Braille; Alec Templeton—satirist and pianist; Andrea Bocelli; Ray Charles; Rabbi Isaac the Blind—(1160-1235)—French Kabbalist; Jose Feliciano; Johann Sebastion Bach; Zohar Sharon—blind pro golfer; Derek Rabelo—blind surfer; Marla Runyan—first blind athlete in the Olympics; Mark Anthony Riccobono, blind NASCAR driver; Richard Turner—professional magician; and many others.

A donkey fell into an abandoned well. Not able to pull the donkey out, the farmer decided he’d have to bury it. When each shovel of dirt landed on its back, the donkey shook it off and stepped up onto a new layer of dirt. Finally, it was able to jump out of the well happy and alive! The moral of the story: When life constantly dumps on you—shake it off and take a step up!

We know everyday people who did not let their blindness stand in the way—Doc lost his sight as a result of an injury during the Korean War. Yet he remained a professor of electrical engineering for 30 years, wrote his own Braille prayerbook, beat me at miniature golf, and was able to fix my son’s electric trains. Aaron is an accomplished lawyer, sports trivia maven and leads the services in synagogue as the cantor. Rabbi Yosef Winefsky, a”h, had people read to him in shifts from all kinds of books, studied under Rabbi Soloveitchik, and published several books. These people are so inspiring and there are many like them.

We need to move beyond seeing blind people as needy, toward a view that all people have needs.

The blessing of Poke’ach Ivrim is not just about gratitude for our own ability to see, but we need to open our eyes and really see and understand how important is the work of The Jerusalem Institute for the Blind.

The Midrash tells us that blindness will be the first infirmity to be cured when the Messiah comes. May that day be soon upon us.

By Wallace Greene

Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene, founder of the Sinai program among other notable educational accomplishments, is also an advocate for the disabled. He was the featured speaker at the Blackout Brunch.

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