Since 1931 the Jewish Braille Institute has provided free books and magazines to the visually impaired and reading disabled.
While the mission hasn’t changed, the format of the reading material has shifted. Initially the JBI offered many materials in braille, with raised dots representing letters that enable the blind to read by touch. Now about 80% of JBI’s patrons request one of the free library’s 13,000 Talking Books, which play on a free playback machine provided by the Library of Congress at JBI’s request. Large print books and magazines are second in popularity with braille requested by less than 9% of patrons.
The shift is the result of changing demographics explains JBI President and CEO Dr. Ellen Isler. “Due to medical advances, fewer children are born blind or become blind early,” she says. “The older population who are visually impaired use talking books and large print.”
“New people are being diagnosed every day with macular degeneration, cataracts, etcetera,” says Ellen.
An estimated 20% of the American Jewish population aged 65 and older is dealing with vision problems caused by cataracts, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, macular degeneration or other age-related vision problems. The National Eye Institute recently reported that more than 3.6 million Americans over 40 are visually impaired.
“We want the library to be as widely used as possible,” says Inna Suholutsky, JBI outreach assistant/Russian liaison. “That is why we are reaching out.”
Some 35,000 individuals are using the free services. Library materials are mailed from JBI’s New York office to patrons across North America, the United Kingdom and Australia. In Russia and the Ukraine, materials are distributed through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, also known as JDC.
In addition to the lending library, JBI provides liturgical materials and special publications such as annual calendars as permanent gifts.
“The Haggadah is a perennial hot item,” says Arlene Arfe, JBI’s head librarian. “We hear from people who don’t do anything else all year, but they do Passover.” To meet that need, JBI gives each client a braille or large print Haggadah. Clients can choose a Reform, traditional, Sephardic or other type of Haggadah. “We try to give people what they need to enjoy the holiday.”
Other frequently requested liturgical materials including a siddur (prayer book), machzor (High Holiday prayer book), Bible, Yizkor service and more are available in large print, braille and audio.
Recently JBI finished braille and audio editions of the new Reform movement machzor.
“It was a huge task,” says Arlene. “Now we are getting ready to do the new Conservative siddur and machzor.”
The JBI does custom translations to enable blind, visually impaired and learning disabled children to participate in Jewish life. Every year parents contact JBI to turn Jewish textbooks, Jewish summer camp songbooks, bar and bat mitzvah materials, and other resources into braille, audio or large print formats for students who cannot read standard print.
“The custom projects are only 2% of our work, but in terms of labor and cost, they are about 20% of our budget,” says Ellen.
Arlene adds, “We use the latest technology, but there is still a lot of human involvement and time to produce every braille item. Hebrew braille has to be typed into the computer; it can’t be scanned.”
Once the text is entered in the computer, it is printed on a special printer that creates the raised dots and is then embossed.
“We can print one text for a student or produce 50 Haggadot – we just send the file to a braille printer,” says Ellen.
In the early years of JBI, braille books had to be created by hand. Many Reform movement sisterhoods had volunteer brigades to help in the work.
To learn more about JBI or to obtain services, call 800-433-1531 or visit jbilibrary.org.
Women of Reform Judaism (formerly the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods) helped found the Jewish Braille Institute, and sisterhood women around the country volunteered to transcribe books into braille and record books on tape. The Reform movement took on serving the blind as part of its social action mission after Rabbi Michael Aaronsohn was blinded in World War I. NFTS created the Committee on Jewish Literature for the Sightless in 1927. When JBI was founded in 1931 to create a national library of braille books, two NFTS officers were among the representatives of all major Jewish denominations on the JBI board. According to Sisterhood: A Centennial History of Women of Reform Judaism, “Memoirs of sisterhood women recount their work in transcribing braille, and synagogue histories mention their braille committees through the 1970s.”