Braille Monitor                                                         July 2007

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A Sense of Isolation

by Loraine Stayer

From the Editor: Loraine Stayer has been a dedicated Federationist for many years. Her husband David is a past president of the NFB of New York and is currently the president of the Long Island Chapter. He also chairs the NFB in Judaism interest group. He is the cantor who traditionally gives the invocation at the beginning of one convention session, ending with a lovely chant. Loraine is a leader in the Writers Division and edits its quarterly publication, Slate and Style. The following report will be of interest to many observant Jews. This is what she says:

Loraine Stayer“I can’t possibly be the only Frum [religiously observant] disabled Jewish woman in the world,” said Sharon Shapiro, as she told of the despair that used to permeate her life at a conference on Sunday, June 3, 2007, for the Jewish Blind and Disabled held in Brooklyn at the Metropolitan Jewish Geriatric Center.

“For six years after I lost my vision, I was incredibly depressed. There was no one to reach out to [in the Jewish community],” Judith B. revealed to me in a private conversation during the conference.

A sense of isolation assails the blind in the Frum Jewish community. The general attitude towards someone who is different, whether blind or otherwise disabled, is shame. Mothers with blind children tend to hide them rather than seek education, in case others might discover that their child is not perfect. A disability is looked at as a punishment by God for some unknown sin.

Discrimination against the blind in religious observance is even written into Halacha (Jewish religious law). If sighted women are present, a blind woman is not required to light candles at the beginning of the Sabbath. A blind man is not required to light a candle to end the Sabbath. Nor is he necessarily required to eat in the Sukkah (a temporary booth usually built in the back yard) on the holiday of Succoth (depending on which rabbi you happen to ask), because he is not able to look up and see the stars. Even worse, no matter how educated he is, he is not allowed to lain (chant/read aloud) from the Torah, because each letter, each word must be pointed to as it is read.

Regardless of whether the text is available in Braille or not, he is not allowed to do this by religious law.

The conference I attended with my husband was given by CSBCare: Computer Science for the Blind, created and directed by Rabbi Nachum Lehman. We first met Rabbi Lehman when he came to our home to install his Torah program in David’s computer. To conserve space, the monitor had been placed on a shelf seven feet in the air. Since Rabbi Lehman is something like five feet six inches tall, he had to stand on a stepladder to see the screen as he installed the program. The program was developed by Rabbi Lehman and others who were computer savvy to assist those who wished to learn Torah. At that time this program was the extent of CSBCare’s services. However, the program has grown over the last couple of years as the needs of the community became known.

Several years ago, when the group National Federation of the Blind in Judaism was formed, discussion occurred regarding how to fill the gap the Jewish Braille Institute was leaving now that it had turned its attention mainly to Talking Books. CSBCare stepped in to fill the gap.

For a religiously observant Jew, using electronic text on the Sabbath is forbidden. This immediately eliminated the possibility of using the electronic Torah program on any but an ordinary weekday. CSBCare was asked to assist in this matter. Rabbi Lehman told us at the conference that he now can produce Braille prayer books upon request (given enough lead time) in Hebrew Braille. He also has been asked at times to produce large print prayer books. Fourteen-point texts are already available, but many of those making requests need far larger text. One person even requested text in sixty point. Rabbi Lehman commented that this would necessitate a prayer book of some twenty thousand pages!

Rabbi Lehman’s nonprofit organization now gives away Braille displays for use with the computer programs. Like all not-for-profit organizations, CSBCare faces the need to raise money to support its efforts. To date the Jewish community has been quite generous, but obviously the expense generated by producing the programs and giving away programs, equipment, and Braille books continues to escalate the need.

The conference lasted from eleven to five and was attended by perhaps a hundred people, most blind or otherwise disabled. Agency representatives from JBI and Visions also attended. Afterwards we stayed around to talk with Rabbi Lehman, and I was able to see one of his programs, very large-print Hebrew on a computer screen.

Because of some of the religious strictures of this community, it is unlikely we will see many of them at our conventions. Kosher meals aside, men and women often request separate seating and speak Yeshivish, a dialect of English sprinkled with many Hebrew words. The efforts of CSBCare will help relieve the sense of isolation many of those at the conference have come to feel.

For more information visit the organization’s Web site at <www.csbcare.org>, or call Rabbi Lehman at (718) 837-4549.

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