My Student, My Teacher
Sometimes it’s the blind who lead the sighted.
In February of 2009, I received an email from a Partners in Torah coordinator. I’d been a mentor in two long-term study partnerships with participants wishing to learn more about their Jewish religion and heritage. Each time, the study partnership had gone well, with regular weekly phone calls lasting about an hour, tailored to address the issues and concerns of the students.
I’d been without a study partner for months and was ready for someone new. According to the email, Cynthia was a self-described “spiritual” Conservative Jew who wanted to learn more about “Judaism and Jewish customs.” The next sentence in the email gave me pause: “Cynthia was in an accident in 1988 and became blind.”
What sort of Jewish studies source materials could be used for the blind? Then I read the next sentence and began to feel reassured: “She is extremely advanced in technology and has all kinds of programs that allow her to read her emails and books.” I set up an appointment to speak with Cynthia over the phone the following week, to discuss specifically what subjects she was interested in studying, and to arrange for a regular weekly schedule.
Our conversation began pleasantly, with my providing a brief autobiographical description and with our discussing Cynthia’s study interests. I was hesitant to raise the issue of her blindness and how it would affect our choice of source materials, but halfway through the conversation she brought it up herself, and offered the details of her history. I was able to learn more about her accomplishments through articles she has written and online sources.
The damage was permanent. Her sight in both eyes was gone.
The critical date for Cynthia was February 28, 1988, which she described as “the beginning of my second life.” She was 39 years old, working as an elementary school English teacher. She was taking a prescription cough medication and awoke at midnight from a fitful sleep with a pounding headache and a feeling of enormous pressure in her eyes. She was unable to see clearly and was taken to the local eye and ear hospital. In the emergency room, the pressure in her eyes was measured and found to be extremely high. The doctor diagnosed Cynthia with having suffered an unusual adverse reaction to the cough medicine, and began treating her first with medications to lower the pressure, and then with laser surgery. The medical team was eventually able to lower the pressure in her eyes, but the damage was done, and it was permanent. Her sight in both eyes was gone.
Cynthia described her initial reaction as “finding myself in a dark and isolated world” and lacking purpose. She retired from her job as a school teacher, but did not give up. She underwent intensive rehabilitation and was taught new skills. She began taking adult education courses from the Hadley School for the Blind. She was named Student of the Year.
In 1991, she became a social worker/educational and recreational volunteer professional at the local seniors’ citizen center. In that capacity, she was able to utilize her skills as a teacher. She began teaching English as a Second Language, conducting group activities, and making telephone calls to the homebound, providing them with counseling and friendship. Eventually, she was named Volunteer of the Year.
She began writing poetry and articles, which have been published in various online sites. Over time, she has taken on more of an active role, dedicated to helping others and providing inspiration to the disabled and disadvantaged. She was photographed for Time Magazine using the “Reading Edge Machine” as an inspiration for other visually impaired people. She was awarded a Citation of Honor for volunteer service. Her letters to the editor appear in various local newspapers, as she advocates for the rights of the disabled and senior citizens. On Sept. 12, 2006 the New York Post announced that she was one of the 10 liberty medal winners, chosen for her work and dedication to the community.
However, as Cynthia explained, her transformation into an advocate for others was not the only positive consequence of the otherwise terrible loss of her vision. As she describes it, she began to “yearn for spiritual enrichment and fulfillment.” In the year 2000, she became affiliated with her synagogue and learned Hebrew Braille. She then was able to read the entire service from the Braille prayer book, and wanted to learn more about the prayer services. That was one of the first subjects Cynthia and I studied together.
In 2002, Cynthia became computer literate and learned to use computer software that reads the screen aloud to her. She began using online resources to learn more about Judaism and the Torah, including Aish.com. It was a reply to her email inquiry to Aish.com that led to her involvement with Partners in Torah. In her own words: “Although I cannot physically see, the Torah's light shines brightly for me . . . and has enriched my life with spirituality and wisdom.”
Cynthia and I study together over the phone on a weekly basis, covering topics such as Jewish prayer, the laws of proper speech, the meaning behind Jewish holidays, Ethics of our Fathers, and the weekly Torah portion. Although I'm the mentor and Cynthia is the student, role reversal is not an unusual occurrence during our study sessions or, more broadly, in our relationship. On a personal level, Cynthia has taught me that what happens to us in life is as much a function of how we react to it as the event itself. She is the personification of the person who is given a lemon, and instead of complaining about its sourness, makes delicious lemonade – not just for herself, but for everyone else to enjoy.
Rather than becoming an embittered person and blaming God for her misfortune, she has reinvented herself to become a more spiritual, sensitive and accomplished person who advocates for others who are disadvantaged.
This article is dedicated to Cynthia Groopman, my study partner and friend, and is based upon her history as related to me verbally and as described in several of her own written articles and poems.