by Deborah Belsky
I started learning Braille Hebrew when I was 9 years old. I was taught by Reverend Harry J. Sutcliffe, a blind Episcopalian minister, who taught Hebrew to many blind students in Brooklyn in the early 1960s.
Hebrew Braille is easy because most of the letters have the same dot configuration as English letters. The vowels are other Braille symbols that are not used as consonants, so the Hebrew student learns them in the context of the Hebrew. For example, an “ah” sound is a Braille “C” which is not used in Hebrew. This is close to what English transliteration is for sighted people, but not exactly the same.
I was the only blind student in my Hebrew school, a Conservative synagogue where almost all the teachers were Orthodox. I remember how the principal, a wonderful Orthodox man, took me up to the sanctuary to see the Torah scroll. I had never imagined what the Torah would be like before he invited me to touch the velvet covers, the silver, and even the parchment itself. It was very awe-inspiring and very beautiful. There were no bat mitzvah services for girls in that synagogue, and I did not have much involvement in high school. Like many young people, I was not much involved in the Jewish community during my college years either, or for many years after.
In 1990, after my mother passed away, a friend of mine invited me to services at Temple Ahavath Sholom in Brooklyn, saying, “You might enjoy coming. We have a woman rabbi.” I went now and again, but I did not think about joining. After my father died, though, I started going to temple more regularly and joined soon after. When I first started attending services, people were at first reticent to get to know me, but they took the lead from my friend, Pam, who had introduced me to the temple, and before very long, I was socially involved with everyone. I found that I loved coming to services; the music was beautiful, the English translations of the prayers were meaningful, and as this was a Reform congregation, I felt fully included as a woman in services. I found that I very quickly got involved because there were committees I knew I could contribute to, like the caring and ritual committees, which strongly interest me. My friends encouraged me to be the lay leader of services when the rabbi was away. The first time, I was petrified because it felt like an awesome task. Since then, I’ve led services many times and often come up to the bimah (pulpit) to lead the congregation in prayer, to have an aliyah (reading or chanting the blessing over the Torah) or to read Torah.
Jewish Braille Institute International supplies Brailled prayerbooks and Judaica free of charge to the blind and vision-impaired, and for those who are computer literate, there is a wealth of Judaic material available online. What congregations should keep in mind, though, is that quite often, simple adjustments to how services are done can make a huge difference to those who are vision-impaired. For example:
- Our congregation uses the two-volume Mishkan T’filah, the Reform prayerbook, because people thought the single volume was unwieldy. However, because the Braille edition of Mishkan T’filah follows the pagination of the single volume, it becomes essential for the service leader to read the bracketted page numbers, which work for both the single and double edition.
- The complete Mishkan T’filah takes up 14 rather large spiral-bound Braille volumes. For one service, I may need to use as many as five separate Braille volumes, so it is very helpful for the service leader to sort through which volumes will be needed for that day’s service.
- Handouts need to be read out loud, which is helpful for many of our older congregants with limited vision, as well.
- Receiving recordings of printed material in advance is extremely helpful too, and has enabled me to participate in Purimspiels, special service readings, and the temple choir.
A couple of years ago, our cantor had a blind student preparing for bat mitzvah at another synagogue. It meant a lot to me that the cantor delivered to the student a letter of encouragement I wrote to her in Braille. I wanted her to know that although she is blind, she too can have a life-long involvement in the synagogue like I have.
Deborah Belsky, who has been blind since birth, is a member of the Board of Trustees of Progressive Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom (a merger of three congregations) in Borough Park, Brooklyn.