Dining in the dark
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Dining in the dark

Local leader describes Blackout Brunch in support of Jerusalem Institute for the Blind

Blindfolded diners participate in the kosher Blackout Brunch to benefit the Jerusalem Institute for the Blind
photos (Courtesy of the Jerusalem Institute for the Blind)
Blindfolded diners participate in the kosher Blackout Brunch to benefit the Jerusalem Institute for the Blind photos (Courtesy of the Jerusalem Institute for the Blind)

There’s a famous morsel of culinary wisdom that tells us that eating is an eyes-first activity. Visually appealing food stimulates our appetite. But what if it is impossible to see what’s on the plate?

That is what blindfolded participants in the kosher Blackout Brunch, a benefit for the Jerusalem Institute for the Blind, will experience on Sunday, May 22, from 10 a.m. to noon, at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue, 5 East 62nd St. in Manhattan.

The unusual culinary event will be facilitated by movement coach Amy Baumgarten, director of Dark Dining Projects, which holds small group dinners for blindfolded diners. The Blackout Brunch puts a unique charitable spin on the entertainment concept.

“Dining in the dark with blindfolds on provides a safe, comfortable and short opportunity to experience what blind people experience, and at the same time you become a better, more sensitized and inspired person,” said Leo Brandstatter, a longtime Fair Lawn resident and the executive director of the Jerusalem Institute for the Blind.

He hopes to have 200 people at the brunch, and would like it to become the organization’s signature fundraiser.

The Jerusalem Institute for the Blind (until recently called the Jewish Institute for the Blind) was established in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1902 and relocated to the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood in 1937. Today, the modern facility serves as a home, school, social outlet, sports center, respite provider, and networking enabler for hundreds of blind and visually challenged Israelis, aged six and up.

The institute gets limited government funding; the New York office was established in the late 1980s to help contribute toward the operating budget.

Students at the Jerusalem Institute for the Blind engage in musical activities designed to enrich their lives.
Students at the Jerusalem Institute for the Blind engage in musical activities designed to enrich their lives.

“We wanted to do an event to raise awareness,” said Mr. Brandstatter, who became executive director in 2012 after a long career in the Madison Avenue advertising world.

“We could have done a traditional dinner or concert. But our board vice president, Judith Jelen, was determined to have something different, and gave us the courage to reach further than ever in creating an event that people would genuinely want to come to, separately from wanting to support the institute,” he said. “And the Blackout Brunch works perfectly with who we are and what we represent.”

The notion was planted in his mind by a visit years ago to Dialogue in the Dark, an experiential exhibition at the Israel Children’s Museum campus in Holon. There, in total darkness, a blind guide takes adult visitors through typical everyday scenarios.

“It gives you tremendous insight into the compensatory mechanisms that blind people employ in the absence of vision,” Mr. Brandstatter said. “We all have that capacity but don’t use it — nor do we have to, usually.”

“But when you eliminate sight, you put into play so many senses, and they become heightened. You have a tremendous experience, in a brief time, of what you yourself can do with your nonvisual senses, and you also get a basic idea of how blind people cope all the time.”

Until he discovered Dark Dining Projects, Mr. Brandstatter worried that sponsoring a lights-out event for sighted supporters could be fraught with issues of safety, comfort, and liability. “With their guidance and help, we’re able to overcome these issues,” he said. “Every time you do something new there are a lot of unknowns, and it’s good to get assistance from those who have been doing it successfully.”

He said that proceeds from the brunch are not earmarked for a specific project. “We’re trying to establish a following, and based upon its size and commitment we’ll be able to target specific needs going forward,” he said.

Technology and adaptive equipment for the visually challenged population is costly, yet that is only the beginning.

The aim of the Jerusalem Institute for the Blind’s school is “trying to get blind children to the point of no longer being needy and dependent,” Mr. Brandstatter said. “With assistance and proper coping mechanisms, they can be the helpers. When confidence is built in them, they can function in their own environment and guide others. It does wonders for their egos and their hopes and dreams.”

Students at the Jerusalem Institute for the Blind engage in musical activities designed to enrich their lives.
Students at the Jerusalem Institute for the Blind engage in musical activities designed to enrich their lives.

The needs of people with visual impairment are more complex in the 21st century, he continued, because medical advances have eliminated many preventable causes of blindness. “So the blindness we see in children today is usually from birth, and often comes with additional handicaps as well. Therefore, the ratio of students to teachers and aides in our school is very low.”

Summer camps and respite programs during vacation periods are essential. “Most children and families look forward to vacations and holidays as a break from routine, but the blind have nothing to do outside of school,” Mr. Brandstatter said.

“We try to give them alternatives. We have a fantastic sports center that is free to the blind and available for a nominal fee to the sighted; it has one of the best pools and gyms in Israel. We have music and library programs and competitive sports teams that have won international championships in games such as goal ball, which is like soccer played with a ball that has a bell inside. The institute has invested tremendously in the facilities to have these opportunities for the blind of all ages.”

Incidentally, several other leaders of the American fundraising arm of the Jerusalem Institute for the Blind are from Fair Lawn, including former president Rabbi David Lapp, secretary/treasurer Dr. Abraham Bichler, and new board member Jacob Blatt.

Mr. Brandstatter, who also was instrumental in founding the Sinai Schools for students with special needs, said that the Blackout Brunch is intended to be “something you will enjoy and talk to others about, and remember as important and inspirational in addition to assisting us as an organization.

“By experiencing the world in this way, we can gain a new perspective on the world of the blind and visually impaired.”

Tickets for the Blackout Brunch are $90 per person until April 12, or $125 per person after April 15. To order tickets, go to www.BlackoutBrunch.org or call (212) 532-4155.

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