People often are drawn to support causes or join professions that have deep meaning to them, not only intellectually but emotionally as well.
High-school athletes become orthopedic surgeons. Children of Holocaust survivors become social workers. Children of parents who got kidney donations work for organizations that promote organ donation. Parents of diabetic children work to enable stem-cell research.
And the daughter of two blind parents and a blind uncle devotes herself to the Jerusalem Institute for the Blind.
On Wednesday, Dianne and Stan Bekritsky of Teaneck will host a fundraiser for the JIB; there’s more information in the box. Ms. Bekritsky, the sighted mother of four sighted children, grew up with an intimate understanding of what it means to be blind — and how it is possible to be blind, enormously successful, and influential.
Ms. Bekritsky’s parents both were born blind, as was her uncle, she said. (Her uncle, Abraham Nemeth, had retinitis pigmentosa, and her mother, Marcia Nemeth Moffitt, believed her blindness to be caused by silver nitrate, which was put in newborns’ eyes to prevent blindness and often ironically caused it instead. There was another sibling who was not blind.) Her father soon left her family, and his story therefore means less to her, but her mother’s and her uncle’s both have formed her.
Education for the blind was different when her mother and uncle were in school than it is now, Ms. Bekritsky said; surprisingly, the change has not been for the better. “The New York City school system in the 1920s and 30s were all about inclusion for blind children,” she said. (Her uncle was born in 1918, and her mother was born in 1926.) “In elementary school, when other students went for recess or lunch or art classes, they went for life skills classes, but otherwise they were included in the other classes. It was very inclusive.”
To be fair, she added, it seems that now “most blind people in the area have multiple handicaps,” since many one-time causes of blindness — such as, for example, putting silver nitrate drops into babies’ eyes — have been eliminated.
“As they got older, they needed more skills and more self-esteem and more independence, so they went to special institutes for junior high and high school,” she continued. “My uncle went to a place in Yonkers that I think was sponsored by the Jewish Guild for the Blind, and my mother was at a school run by the New York Institute for the Blind on Pelham Parkway,” in the Bronx.
There, they became increasingly independent and self-confident. Both flourished. “My mother learned how to catch a ball, and my uncle learned how to swim,” Ms. Bekritsky said. They also learned the skills necessary to function as a blind person in a sighted world. They were fluent readers of Braille. “My uncle learned how to use a cane, and after high school my mother got a seeing eye dog.” That first dog was named Star, “and she slept under my crib,” Ms. Bekritsky said.
Ms. Bekritsky and her mother lived with her mother’s parents, Sarah and Benjamin Nemeth, in Brownsville, in Brooklyn, where her grandfather was a kosher butcher, but “my mother was independent,” she said. “She worked and she supported us. She was a Dictaphone typist” — brilliant and perfect, isn’t that? — “and an opera singer.” She died in 1993.
And then there was her uncle. “He was a creative genius,” Ms. Bekritsky said. He earned a master’s degree in psychology at Columbia, doctorate in math at Wayne State University, and then taught computer science at the University of Detroit, eventually becoming the department chair. (He also earned some of the money to put himself through school by playing piano — another of his long list of skills — at bars.)
Because he was frustrated that Braille was not supple enough for mathematics, Dr. Nemeth developed the Nemeth Code, which went a very long way toward solving that problem; he is revered for it today, according not only to his proud niece but to the New York Times, who wrote a long and fascinating obituary about him when he died in 2013.
“My uncle also was well versed in Judaic studies,” Ms. Bekritsky said. “My great- grandfather — my uncle’s grandfather — sat with him every Shabbat. He taught him how to daven; he taught him Chumash and Mishnah and Gemara and the man retained it.
“Later on, when he retired, he translated both Siddur Sim Shalom” — a Conservative movement prayer book — “and the Art Scroll siddur” — which is Orthodox — into Braille.” Dr. Nemeth grew up Orthodox — his niece and her family, which includes four children and many grandchildren — are Orthodox — but later he became Conservative, and he retained his connections to both worlds.
So, if anyone would be likely to be drawn to an organization that helps the blind, it would be Ms. Bekritsky. She chose the Jerusalem Institute for the Blind because when she got a flier from the organization — and the flier wasn’t even addressed to her, but sent instead to one of her sons, who lives in Israel — she read it. “And I said, ‘Wow. This is a place just like where my mother and my uncle went.’ They were taught self-esteem and independence from an institution just like this one.
“I think it’s phenomenal. The institute was created in 1902. It is 115 years old! And there is nothing else like it in the Middle East.
“It provides services for the blind — both young students and older ones. It has residential capabilities, after-school programming, teaches people sports. It has a swimming pool. That’s what drew me to it.”
Like the schools that educated her mother and her uncle many decades ago, the JIB works to provide blind children and adults with the skills and the self-confidence to help themselves. It tailors its programs to its students’ needs, and with sensitivity and love it equips them to live in the world self-sufficiently and as part of a community.
Dianne Bekritsky knows first-hand how successful such an approach can be, and how fulfilled the life to which leads often is.
Who: Dianne and Stan Bekritsky of Teaneck
What: Invite the community to a wine and cheese tasting (and tips on pairing) to benefit the Jerusalem Institute for the Blind
When: On Wednesday, June 7, from 7:45 to 9 p.m.
Where: At their home; details available with RSVP
How to learn more: RSVP to JIB’s executive director, Leo Brandstatter, or call him at (212) 532-4155.