The Braille Monitor                                                                                       November 2002

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People of the Book Lose the Book and Much More:

New Leadership and No Vision

at Jewish Braille Institute of America

by Buffa Hanse

Buffa Hanse
Buffa Hanse

From the Editor: Buffa Hanse holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature and is a graduate of the Louisiana Center for the Blind. She teaches Braille at the Kentucky Department for the Blind and is an active member of her local Jewish community.

Since its founding in 1931 the Jewish Braille Institute of America (JBI) has been the leading agency providing services to the Jewish blind in the U.S., Israel, and the world. In the view of many in the Jewish blind community, recent changes at JBI demonstrate declining services and decreasing respect for blind people. Because this community is relatively small, a number of those whom I interviewed were unwilling to make comments for attribution. I have been careful to check facts from at least two sources, except when they are part of a conversation reported by one participant. Here is the story.

Jews are known as the people of the Book since the Torah, the five Books of Moses, plays a central role in their religious tradition. According to the Talmud, a record of rabbinic thought and interpretation, wherever possible a Jew should live in a community containing at least these three things: a Jewish cemetery, a doctor, and a house of study. Without these a Jewish community cannot exist. Today books are of course necessary for study.

Jews are also obligated to provide good deeds and charity to those in their community and beyond. The late-twelfth-century philosopher Moses Maimonides lists a number of degrees of charity or acts of righteousness. The eighth and highest degree among these is to provide money, interest-free loans, gifts, and tools so that someone can provide for himself or herself. All Jews, no matter how limited their resources, are obligated to engage in this outreach without embarrassment to either party. Gifts are often provided anonymously or in person with a matter-of-fact respect. In this context it is no wonder that the Jewish Braille Institute of America has a seventy-year history of providing Braille, audiotapes, and much more to blind Jews and non-Jews everywhere.

In October of 2000 Gerald Kass, the executive vice president of JBI and a familiar figure to National Federation of the Blind convention goers and Monitor readers, retired for medical reasons. Dr. Ellen Isler, who herself admitted in an interview with the Braille Monitor that she has no experience in the blindness field, became executive vice president in January of 2001. Now that JBI has become the first, but not the only, affiliated library of the Library of Congress's National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) and Isler has had over a year to establish her interests and priorities for JBI, we thought a look at this library was in order.

Jacob Fried
Jacob Fried

Throughout its history JBI and its staff have had a close relationship with the NFB. Our founding president, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, was a longtime friend and colleague of Dr. Jacob Fried, who was executive vice president of JBI for over twenty-five years. Everyone whom the Monitor interviewed—including such giants in our field as Dr. Abraham Nemeth, who knew the man—said that Jacob Fried was a Mensch, a real human being who goes above and beyond what is called for to serve his fellow man.

Dr. Fried spoke about NFB philosophy at our conventions. He and JBI were among the lonely few agencies that stood with the NFB during our civil war. And, as Paul Kay (attorney, former JBI board member, and Federationist) warmly recalls, "Jacob Fried marched with us in protest to the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC). He marched as one of us on Madison Avenue in July of 1973." Whether it was because of liberal Judaism's tradition of solidarity with other minorities, his friendship with Dr. tenBroek and later Dr. Jernigan, his own experience as a minority group member, his visual impairment (though not blindness), his research as a sociologist, or all of these, Jacob Fried understood and respected blind people as equals. He was our colleague, our friend, and a partner in our movement. He brought joy and pride to our NFB family. Dr. Jernigan even quoted Dr. Fried's research in his 1963 address "Blindness: Handicap or Characteristic."

Gerald Kass
Gerald Kass

As Federationist Rami Rabby noted, though not "as enamored of our movement and the collective action of the organized blind," Gerald Kass, who had been Jacob Fried's assistant before succeeding him, also understood the social stigma the blind must live with and change in our daily lives. He would help individual blind people whenever and wherever he could. Even before becoming a Jew, this reporter, unemployed at the time, wrote a letter enclosing a résumé to Gerald Kass because she deeply respected JBI and Judaism. She was astonished to receive a warm, individual response requesting to keep the résumé for a time to look for possible employment for her.

Kass attended our conventions and kept us abreast of the activities at JBI. Both Fried and Kass engaged blind people and understood that the major problems of blindness are not the inability to access print or drive a car, but result from society's negative attitudes about it. Jacob Fried shared a collective vision with the blind, and Gerald Kass shared the individual struggles against discrimination and social stigma that we encounter. With two such predecessors and Dr. Isler's administrative ability, what more could JBI and the blind have wished for? But let the facts speak for themselves.

See if you agree with Federationist and JBI Board Member Ed Lewinson that Dr. Isler is running JBI like "any large agency" and "with no knowledge of blindness." Many members of the JBI staff are quite knowledgeable. Pearl Lamm's detailed knowledge of the Braille and audiotape library of Judaica comes to mind. But increasingly in recent times blind patrons have found themselves belittled and their requests mocked. For example, one Federationist requested a scholarly edition of a volume of the Talmud and was told abruptly, "We don't have books like that," rather than being given the procedure for requesting that a sacred text be produced in Braille.

David Stayer, a longtime borrower, had to wait two years to receive a songbook. He was also told condescendingly when he requested two copies of his orthodox prayer book, one for use in his synagogue and one for use in his daughter's, that rabbis wouldn't provide a place to keep the books. In fact, his rabbi had already said he would. Though perhaps Dr. Nemeth's work structuring and translating the Art Scroll Prayer Book solves the problem, David also commented that in the Jerusalem Prayer Book, the only orthodox one now available to him, he cannot participate in parts of the religious services because the book is incomplete.

Another Federationist, Ruth Sager, notes that, when dealing with JBI staff, "I feel as though they are more concerned to establish that I'm a patron than to answer my question. I feel like an intruder rather than an active reader." She and others have also noted that it is sometimes difficult to get the books one has ordered. Though such specific incidents may seem small to Dr. Isler, they aren't in the lives of blind people; they set a tone and demonstrate a disrespectful and patronizing attitude, an attitude of doing for rather than working in partnership with the blind.

Here's yet another example. Recently JBI began circulating the Jerusalem Report. Rather than producing all the issues for a limited time or waiting until the money was in hand to begin full production, Dr. Isler told her staff that only select issues would be produced. When Federationist Brad Greenspan complained, suddenly the money for full production of what Dr. Isler would later characterize as "quite a popular publication" began appearing. When asked why only select issues had been produced and if she thought a library for the sighted would choose to provide only selected issues, Dr. Isler told the Monitor that she had been "testing the market" and that she hadn't had enough money in that year's budget for all the issues. Yet in the same period the 2001 annual report shows that hundreds of thousands of dollars for partnerships and outreach were available. Isler apparently ignores the underlying assumptions at the root of actions like this.

Here is a more difficult yet emblematic example. It shows the need professionals, newly blinded seniors, and their families have to receive education regarding skills and healthy attitudes about blindness. Recently sources close to JBI reported to the Braille Monitor that JBI staff have produced an abridged large-print Haggadah, a brief version of major parts of the Passover story. When asked why a compilation and not the entire Haggadah was produced, Dr. Isler explained that it was because social workers working with the "frail elderly blind population in nursing homes felt it would be easier for them to handle" than the entire text.

Of course Federationists are happy for these seniors to have access to a Haggadah of any kind for Passover and to have the joy of celebrating the Seder, no matter how incomplete. But these elderly adults themselves, their families, or advocates chosen by them should have made the request, not professionals who assume they know what's best, well-intentioned as they may be.

The experience of Federationist Rami Rabby, a U.S. Foreign Service Officer and now former JBI board member, demonstrates just how little knowledge Dr. Isler has of blindness and how problematic her limited knowledge has been in achieving her vision for JBI—reaching the underserved elderly blind Jewish population in retirement centers and nursing homes. Of course NFB members are pleased that older blind people receive services from JBI, but we also know that in order for them to receive quality services, they must be grounded in an understanding that the social stigma of blindness is the most significant problem, not loss of sight.

Dr. Isler and Rami Rabby first met at the board meeting at which Dr. Isler was presented as the search committee's choice for executive vice president. Incidentally, the search committee had refused to interview a qualified blind person for this job. (All of the executive staff are sighted.) When Dr. Isler gushed about working for JBI being the most marvelous achievement she might now imagine, Mr. Rabby asked why, in light of current events, she wanted to work for JBI rather than for the Abraham Fund (her previous employer), an organization dedicated to the resolution of problems between Arabs and Jews in Israel. Dr. Isler didn't answer this question, but she did explain that the foundation of her outreach to the older blind Jewish population should be based on ideas such as calling them "visually impaired" rather than blind.

When discussing her planned outreach with the Monitor, she said that newly blind seniors don't think of themselves as blind people, so they don't know about available resources. As far as this argument goes, she is correct. But because these newly blind adults don't think of themselves as blind, they don't have a chance to learn that blindness can be just another characteristic. As Mr. Rabby tried to explain to her, the real problem of blindness is the social stigma attached to it. Older sighted Jews are afraid of losing their sight and, sometimes unconsciously, as a result don't include their blind peers in their activities.

After this first unfruitful meeting with Dr. Isler, Mr. Rabby waited some little time, then invited JBI President Barbara Friedman and Dr. Isler to meet with him privately in an attempt to help them understand that the real problem of blindness is people's attitudes towards it rather than the simple inaccessibility of reading material. But to no avail.

When the Monitor reporter asked about this social isolation of older blind Jews and the attitudinal problems associated with blindness, Dr. Isler said: "They're not isolated from Jewish community activities. The Jewish community is making a great effort to include everyone in its community activities. We are a cultural organization, and what we are doing is trying to give them the tools, mostly through audiotape and large print, to maintain the activities in which they were already engaged. That is, to make it possible for them to participate in synagogue life, to participate in book clubs, to participate in continuing education, and so on. We are a cultural organization; we are a library. When they ask, or we think it advisable, we refer them to rehabilitation services, to the Lighthouse, and to other organizations, to the Jewish Guild for the Blind, but we don't provide those services. We are a library and a cultural organization."

Many communities are probably open to blind Jews, as this reporter's is, but how many engage blind Jews fully as movers and shakers, not just participants or objects of charity? As all Federationists know, before one can fully participate in activities, one must feel comfortable with one's blindness rather than sweeping it under the carpet with a label such as "visually impaired" or with no label at all. Without an understanding of the attitudinal problems of blindness, inclusion will be forced, often an obligation, not emerging from the natural course of engagement and conversation.

Soon after Rabby's abortive discussion with the JBI leadership, in a committee meeting a discussion of the focus of JBI outreach and Dr. Isler's new vision occurred. In this discussion Myron Kaplan, New York attorney and JBI board member, rudely told Mr. Rabby not to "torpedo" Ellen Isler's program. When we attempted to confirm this remark, however, Mr. Kaplan, through his secretary, referred us to Ellen Isler, who had not been present and who said she had no knowledge of this rather condescending and overbearing comment.

Recognizing that it was highly unlikely that one sighted trustee would make such a comment to another, Mr. Rabby walked out of the meeting and never attended another meeting of the JBI board. As he was waiting for a few months to see if anything about JBI would change, Rabby received information about an institutional name change and a statement of monetary expectations for board members. Mr. Rabby resigned in October 2001. Though Dr. Isler said she respected Rami Rabby's priorities—the priorities of the NFB—she would not say what she thought they were. But she made it clear they are not those of JBI. We are left to conclude that empowerment, rights, and responsibility through collective action; quality services; research; and training are no longer priorities of the venerable JBI.

As for the monetary responsibilities of JBI board members, Dr. Isler and other sources close to JBI confirmed that, by and large, board members are expected to contribute $5,000 annually to JBI. Dr. Isler insisted that some on the board have other talents (for "talents" read "are blind and therefore not expected to contribute") but that this distinction does not create a two-tiered board of trustees. With a 70 percent unemployment rate among the working-age blind population, how many blind people could meet this expectation? Dr. Isler also insisted that a monetary contribution is a normal expectation for boards of trustees for all nonprofits.

Dr. Isler and the JBI board of trustees have approved a name change, a change which Dr. Isler says reflects the wider scope of the international work JBI does. The corporate name is now JBI International, Inc., and below that appears "founded as Jewish Braille Institute in 1931." In an attempt to understand what the initials "JBI" now stand for, the reporter asked for clarification. Dr. Isler's reply was simply to repeat the entire name. Of course the name should reflect JBI's broader scope, but the title Jewish Braille Institute International would have accomplished that goal without compromising the organization's name recognition. The actual truth would appear to be that, though the powers that be do wish to have the organization's name reflect its broadening scope, they would also very much prefer to sidestep the word "Braille" and its necessary reference to blindness; otherwise, why the shift to initials in the title and use of small print beneath?

If we briefly examine JBI's 2001 Annual Report, some insights become obvious. On the front is written "Annual Report 2001, Focus on JBI." In very small letters in the middle of "Focus on JBI" (which appears to be in an eighteen-point or larger font) this text appears: "News from the Jewish Braille Institute of America." Beneath that is the slogan "An International Jewish Agency Meeting The Needs Of The Visually Impaired And The Blind."

On the back cover above the address label appears "All the books you've always wanted to hear." Below that is a picture of a man with words coming out of a myriad of books he is holding and going in a circle to his ears. The man is smiling. To the right of this large image are the words "The world's largest library of Jewish interest books and magazines for the visually impaired." The address and phone number also appear. Below the picture the text reads, "JBI: Jewish books for the Visually Impaired." In a block in the bottom corner appears "Focus on JBI is published by the Jewish Braille Institute of America." The reader's eye is drawn to the man and the ideas in the middle of the page.

A quick scan of the text inside reveals that the words "visually impaired" appear three times as often as the word "blind." No mention is made of the participation of blind people in the seventieth anniversary gala held at the New York Public Library, although the great Jewish authors who were present are mentioned. As one source close to JBI wryly commented, the staff apparently saw little reason to invite or mention blind people in a gathering of 120 distinguished supporters. Certainly it was appropriate to highlight the gala and the new board members in this report, but surely an agency sincerely committed to serving blind people would have demonstrated its relationship with the blind community, not just present the donors who contribute to the poor visually impaired and blind.

Unfortunately this underlying disregard for blind people extends to individual JBI staff and fundraising. For example, a senior blind employee was suddenly demoted from management, her salary reduced by a third, and her assistant removed, according to sources close to JBI.

Also several sources around the country have told the Monitor that JBI fundraisers have made requests allegedly for production funds to transcribe Hebrew text into Braille. They later learned that the funds raised had been used solely for outreach and not to produce Braille at all.

The Jewish Braille Institute has recently become the first of several NLS-affiliated libraries, according to Frank Kurt Cylke, director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). (See also the "In Brief" section of the September/October issue of Braille Book Review.) According to Dr. Isler, this partnership will allow NLS to do joint outreach and to work in the development and use of the digital Talking Book. Although sources close to JBI suggest that other in-kind services such as cheaper tape production would be available, Dr. Isler did not confirm this. Books from JBI have always been available through the NLS cooperating libraries program. Although JBI will retain its  audiotape books, its 8,000 titles and 70,000 volumes of Braille Judaica were acquired outright by NLS, according to Isler and Cylke, although no money changed hands.

Under the new system books may be requested through either JBI or NLS. New patrons will be eligible to receive books automatically from either library when one institution approves their eligibility for service. This is all well and good, assuming that the communication needed to make such coordination effective actually occurs.

At one time JBI's complete library was located at its headquarters in Manhattan. But because of the storage expense the Braille collection was moved to upstate New York. When a Braille book was requested through JBI, it was sent from storage to JBI and then to the reader. A standby library of sacred Braille texts and the most popular of the other Judaica was kept on hand at JBI to supply the most often requested books. The tape library, however, has always been located at JBI in New York City, where, as it has grown, it has clearly displaced the Braille collection. This tape collection will not be affected by the change. But in the JBI Braille collection, only Braille prayer books, songbooks, and the like will now be kept at JBI.

All sources agree that approximately two years ago discussions began regarding the storage—"warehousing," in Dr. Isler's words—of the Braille library. When asked if she had explored other options to store the Braille, Dr. Isler said that she had considered NLS a perfect fit because they are the national library of record and JBI is the national library of record of Jewish interest. Apparently no effort was made to consult blind people, who clearly no longer have any real say in policy matters at JBI.

The Braille books will be available for circulation in approximately six to eight months from the multistate center where they will be stored, according to Cylke. Although Braille books are not generally available overseas from NLS, as Cylke confirmed this summer, Dr. Isler assured the Monitor that JBI would receive the foreign request, then request the book from NLS and send it from JBI. But this solution to the problem of filling international requests for books requires an additional level of bureaucracy, which is certainly unfortunate for borrowers.

When asked why she gave the Braille library to NLS, Isler made it clear that she believes the money for "warehousing the Braille" could be better spent on production and on outreach. But let her explain her attitude toward Braille since she doesn't think so-called cultural organizations need to worry about nurturing healthy attitudes about blindness. This is what she says:

People who lose their vision, people in their sixties and seventies cannot learn Braille. It is pragmatically impossible. I have been told that it is very difficult, especially difficult, even for older younger adults. It not only presents the problems of learning the equivalent of a foreign language, but there is a loss of sensitivity in the fingertips after a certain age that makes it especially difficult. . . . The easiest way for seniors who are losing their vision to replace their lifelong reading habits is by the use of audiobooks and, when possible, large print. . . . But I'm also told that even those who are born blind depend more and more on audio resources and are making less use of Braille.

Isler's reasons for giving JBI's Braille to NLS and her attitudes about it are clear: to raise money from the social-service organizations serving older Jews (see the partnerships in the 2001 Annual Report), to increase the number of tape and large-print subscribers, and to de-emphasize Braille—the only true medium in which a blind person can be literate. And all this is being done with little or no consultation with the Jewish blind community.

As Dr. Harold Snider, chairman of the International Braille Research Center, says, "I believe anything that denies blind people literacy, the right to read and the ability to read, is negative—whether it's denying them Braille or tape, but particularly the right to read Braille books. JBI has a unique collection on Judaica, now given to NLS. It has abrogated its responsibility to make new Braille books on Judaica available, except by request. Such an action continues a negative trend occurring in this country in which people who are sighted and don't know anything about blindness and Braille think you can throw it away because it's an anachronism."

In a discussion of JBI and Braille literacy, Nadine Jacobson, president of the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille, said, "Braille isn't outmoded; it's true literacy." Blind Jews can read to their children and grandchildren; a congregant can read from the Torah or read a speech at his or her local Jewish Federation meeting. One needs Braille to do a close textual reading (a Jewish tradition long before the printing press) at the same time as one's sighted colleagues.

In the past books were added to the Braille Judaica collection in two ways. Significant and representative books were chosen by knowledgeable JBI staff, and books were requested by borrowers. For the foreseeable future books will be added to the collection only upon request, according to sources close to JBI. In a time when technology makes it entirely possible to produce paper Braille upon demand, liquidating and fragmenting a living library is ludicrous. Although Isler says there are ongoing talks about preserving the Braille Judaica, much of it hand-copied, Cylke has made it clear that the major NLS collection will be preserved before those of the affiliated libraries.

The people of the Book are losing the Book, and much more. As Dr. Isler pointed out, "When NLS did a study, they found only two duplications in JBI's entire 8,000-title library. They were very glad to include these titles in the Union Catalog." Such results are no surprise. The primary purpose of the NLS collection is to meet the recreational needs of the general blind population, and the purpose of the JBI library has been to provide a representative selection of published Judaica, as well as requested titles.

As Arie Gamliel, the former director of programs for blind children in the Jerusalem Public Schools and a longtime Federationist, says of recent changes at JBI, "It is a tragedy and . . . undoes the work of the great founders of JBI."

So be vigilant, Federationists. NLS has acquired Braille from the Jewish Guild for the Blind, JBI, and who knows who else. Before we're through, the libraries at our training centers, the National Center for the Blind, the National Research and Training Institute for the Blind, the Iowa Department for the Blind, and the shrinking Braille libraries at the nation's residential schools may be the only independent collections in the country.

Jews are commanded to live in hope; so it is that we in the Federation hope that the beta testing of Duxbury's Hebrew Braille translator will be completed and fully functional within a year as Isler projects. When asked about whether JBI has good relations with major publishers, she responded affirmatively, mentioning the Jewish Publication Society. In this spirit one hopes it will take only five years to receive the new Tree of Life Chumash, a Bible and commentaries used for major study and in services. The fourteen years required to complete the work on Sim Shalom (a major prayer book) made the book outdated in many synagogues which have now adopted newer editions or other prayer books.

To save time, rather than having such Braille books requested, the major texts and books of the four major movements in Judaism should be translated into Braille in consultation with the publishers, prior to print publication. It is a tall order to be a complete Jewish Braille Press and a social service organization simultaneously. And it seems rather obvious that Dr. Isler knows JBI isn't equipped to provide thorough, quality, multifaceted services in the United States, Israel, Europe, and the former Soviet Union. Hence, from her point of view, Braille is used the least, so valued the least. We may dream of having complete, comprehensive services for everyone. But does it serve anyone well to provide incomplete services to everyone?

Upon hearing of the choices JBI has begun to make, Dr. Frederic K. Schroeder, professor and former commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, agreed that what he said in his speech, "Research and Future Opportunities for the Blind," at this year's NFB national convention is true of JBI's choices and about the power of Braille literacy. This power should be a birthright and an initiation for the blind, Jews and non-Jews alike. But let Dr. Schroeder define this power and responsibility: "The power of collective action, the power of self-expression, the power to refute the artificial barriers arising out of myth and misunderstanding—in short, the power that comes from having our fundamental equality supported by our research, our technology, and our training."

Why should this power and the true empowerment of life be denied to older blind Jews in the name of "what's easier" or "done most often" in sighted professionals' opinions? It shouldn't. So let a reader who grew up with JBI—Adrienne Asch, a professor of bioethics at Wellesley College—summarize the professional and personal situation:

Ever since I was small, the Jewish Braille Institute was a part of my life, and a part that indicated that being Jewish and blind weren't at all incompatible. I had prayer books, books for Sunday school and Bat Mitzvah, and a huge library of books, more than I could ever read, on the history and religion of the Jewish people. Jacob Fried wrote about the NFB with great admiration in the pages of the Jewish Braille Review in the 1960's, and he understood the philosophy and civil rights spirit of Jacobus tenBroek and saw them as in harmony with the best of Jewish ideals.

The JBI has not always lived up to its espoused philosophy and mission, and that is a great tragedy. But its library and its mission should be preserved for Jews the world over . . . and they should be updated as Jewish thought changes. Any NLS patron already had access to these books, because the library and all of JBI's services were available to the Jewish and non-Jewish blind. It is good that the materials will now be listed in NLS publications, such as the Web site and Union Catalog, but they should be preserved and housed at the JBI, where librarians knowledgeable about Judaica could help patrons discover the richness of this material.

In this new year 5763 according to the Jewish Calendar and in the spirit of repairing the world (a Jewish obligation), the Braille Monitor urges Dr. Isler to visit our NFB training centers, to come to our conventions, to look to Jewish blind professionals who work with seniors such as Ruth Sager to understand quality services. Become a true partner with the blind. We can begin our relationship anew, but only if it is an equal one based on dignity, respect, an understanding that blindness, and all disabilities for that matter, are fundamentally problems of attitude and perception and not problems resulting from the physical characteristic of blindness. For it is in the spirit of Moses Maimonides' eighth degree of charity/righteous actions that the JBI was founded, and it is in this spirit in memory and celebration of Jacob Fried that it should continue.

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