A rabbi was having trouble with his vision. So, he created a Braille Sefer Torah – Frederick News Post

Posted By on July 3, 2021

Rabbi Lenny Sarko had a problem that was threatening to derail his career.

After spending years as an environmental scientist creating recycling systems for corporations nationwide, Rabbi Sarko realized he was done with all the travel and decided to pursue a job related to his one true passion: Judaism. That was 15 years ago, and since then, he has been embedded with synagogues in Indiana; Tampa, Florida; and Columbus, Ohio, before landing at Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where he has been for the past two years.

Before moving to the Pittsburgh area, though, Rabbi Sarko suffered from a serious health scare. About five years ago, he experienced bleeding in his eyes as a result of Type 2 diabetes that left him with about 80 percent of his left eyes vision but only 10 percent to 15 percent in his right eye. He can still mostly read, and his eyesight hasnt deteriorated further, but the damage was also irreparable, and there are certain things he just cant do anymore, such as driving at night.

I kind of have a foot in both worlds, both those who struggle with vision issues and the sighted, Rabbi Sarko said. Being that and a rabbi, it put me in a rather different position than most people might ever find themselves in. ... Not being able to read was a potential horror story.

As a rabbi, not to be able to have access to books was very scary to me, he continued. That started me to say, OK, as a Jew, you find solutions. The first solution was to learn English Braille. After that, you start asking other questions like, If theres English Braille, is there Hebrew Braille? Yes. ... Then, I asked the question: Is there such a thing as a Braille Sefer Torah?

A Sefer Torah is a sacred Jewish scroll containing the five books of Moses that usually is subject to strict rules regarding its production and how its to be read. After being unable to locate a Braille Sefer Torah currently in existence, Rabbi Sarko decided to take matters into his own hands and, after almost three years, created what may be the worlds first Braille Sefer Torah.

It was a fairly herculean undertaking, as standard Torahs generally cost about $25,000 a pop and take about a year for a scribe to complete, Rabbi Sarko said. His special Torah took so long to make because he spent an extra year developing a mistake-free process to manually poke Braille holes onto a scroll. Generally, scribes have to start over after committing even the smallest blunder, which meant he had to effectively eliminate any potential margins of error.

Now that hes perfected the process, Rabbi Sarko says, My plates can be used to make hundreds and thousands of Torahs going forward. He said he can probably make a Braille Torah in four or five months by himself and one or two months if he has help.

Because Braille isnt a language but rather a way to represent speech in a different way, Rabbi Sarkos Torah is just Hebrew in Braille as opposed to a transliteration. Torahs are supposed to be read and not memorized, which a Braille Torah makes possible for blind and visually impaired Jews. A Braille Torah must be touched while reading it, which technically isnt allowed under Jewish doctrine. Rabbi Sarko isnt worried about that, though.

In one respect, youre telling a blind or visually impaired person theyre a full member of the community, he said, then youre turning around and telling them they cant do this. To me, thats an important part, and I started to ask questions. ... Judaism across its millennia has always adjusted to context. How do we do a mitzvah in this situation?

The word mitzvah is the Hebrew word for good deed, and its also exactly how Erika Petach would describe what Rabbi Sarko has accomplished. As the president of Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that helps folks in those categories reach their highest levels of independence, she loves the concept of a Braille Torah and how it will impact the local Jewish community.

I think its awesome, she said. Our goal at BVRS is 100 percent inclusivity for everyone we serve. This is a way that this individual is making the reading of the Torah 100 percent inclusive.

BVRS offers a variety of free programs to the blind and visually impaired, including professional assistance, residential services, access technology lessons, personal adjustment to blindness training and low-vision rehabilitation. Petach said it also frequently aids its more religious members via volunteers who help them get to and from houses of worship.

She has been with BVRS for 11 years and said certain technological advances such as 3D printing have opened up a lot of opportunities to provide things in tactile formats for the population she serves. Whats possibly even more valuable, though, is making sure the blind and visually impaired know about innovations such as Rabbi Sarkos Braille Torah.

The more people hear these stories about what there is for people who are blind or the capabilities of people who are blind, that starts to knock down barriers, she said.

As for Rabbi Sarko, he wants to begin stockpiling Braille Sefer Torahs and lending them out to congregations and individuals across the country for specific occasions. Hes attempting to fund this endeavor with grants hes applied for through the Devarim Institute, his Jewish education nonprofit.

He estimated there are more than 300,000 blind or visually impaired Jews in the United States. Rabbi Sarko invites any of them in Western Pennsylvania to visit Emanu-El Israel and check out his invention for themselves.

Come read the Torah! he said. Do it! This is a wonderful mitzvah. Theres nothing more thrilling. ... Its so meaningful for them. I cant think of a nicer gift to give to people.

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A rabbi was having trouble with his vision. So, he created a Braille Sefer Torah - Frederick News Post

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