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Arts & Culture: for Thousands of Visually Impaired, Braille Institute is Eye on the World

When Barry Wiener turned 13, he wanted to have a Bar Mitzvah.

Blind since birth, however, Wiener couldn’t read the Torah.

Fortunately for Wiener, the Jewish Braille Institute of America provided him with all the necessary materials in Braille — including a Braille Torah — so he could study for his ceremony.

“This organization is wonderful, one-of-a-kind,” says Wiener, now 50 and a clinical psychologist living in Brooklyn.

Wiener is not alone.

Some 300,000 American Jews — as well as others around the world — who are blind, have trouble reading standard print or are otherwise visually impaired benefit from the free services of the Jewish Braille Institute, which likes to think of itself as the “best-kept secret in the Jewish world.”

Since 1931, the Manhattan-based institute has provided visually impaired Jews with books, magazines and special publications in Braille and in large print, as well as audio cassettes, to help them participate in Jewish educational, cultural, religious and communal life.

The institute was founded by Leonard Dubov, the son of a blind rabbi, with the help of Rabbi Michael Aaronsohn, who was blinded during World War II.

It also counsels parents of blind children and children of blind parents.

The institute is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year with a number of receptions and events in conjunction with the New York Public Library.

The institute was formed at a time when Judaic materials in Braille were generally unavailable.

The institute provides religious materials such as Haggadahs and Bibles in large print, as well as Reform, Conservative and Orthodox prayer books on tape.

Other Jewish resources include 8,000 titles in the institute’s Talking Book Library and magazines ranging from the in-house JBI Voice to more political publications such as Commentary and Tikkun. It also sponsors lectures, concerts, and dramatic readings in English, Russian, Yiddish, Hungarian and Romanian.

Since its founding, the institute has passed several milestones. In 1950, it published its first Braille Torah, and in 1992 extended its services to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

The books serve a growing population, says Israel Taub, the institute’s associate director.

As the American life span increases, the elderly suffer from a larger number of diseases — including macular degeneration, which limits vision.

These diseases can have harmful psychological effects, as people accustomed to reading find they no longer can, Taub says.

The institute’s extensive services help with both the physical and psychological effects of blindness.

The institute “has opened up a whole new world for me,” says Evelyn Liefer, 80, who gradually lost her sight from macular degeneration.

“Unlike other libraries, where there are only limited copies available, if you request a title they’ll record it for you within a week so you don’t need to wait,” Wiener says.

Wiener’s favorite authors include Israeli novelists Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua and the American Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”

Clarita Gollender, a retiree originally from Argentina, also praises the library, which, she says, does not “cause any problems about overdue books.”

Gollender went blind gradually after contracting measles at the age of 6. She graduated from the Maryland School for the Blind and received a bachelor’s degree from Maryland’s Goucher College, using Braille and recordings.

A few years ago, however, she faced a crisis. Gollender had been the only blind member of a book club — participating with the aid of a friend who read to her over the telephone — until her friend dropped out of the club.

Luckily for Gollender, the institute helped her to rediscover her love for books.

Gollender, who already knows Spanish, Russian and English, said enthusiastically, “Maybe I’ll try books in Yiddish someday.”

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Books can be ordered from the Jewish Braille Institute by calling 1-800-433- 1531 or through the Web at jbilibrary.org.

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