| Magazine Feature |

A New Light

Despite the darkness, nothing has prevented Reb Chaim and Oriah Jerbi from embracing the light of G-dly blessings

Photo: Yoav Davidkowitz

He was born blind, yet his parents never let him think there was something he couldn’t accomplish — he became a musician and even runs a wedding band. She lost her sight to a rare degenerative disease when she was in high school but didn’t let it defeat her. And despite the darkness, nothing has prevented Reb Chaim and Oriah Jerbi from embracing the light of G-dly blessings

The savory aromas of traditional Moroccan Shabbos delicacies fill the air in the home of Reb Chaim and Oriah Jerbi. Soup is simmering on the stove, and a foil-covered pan of spicy fish is cooling on the counter. It’s Thursday evening, a hectic time in most Jewish homes, but in the Jerbis’ Kiryat Sefer apartment there is an air of organization, calm, and tranquility. A light knock at the door and Reb Chaim, who has just returned from Maariv, lets himself in as Oriah wipes her hands on a dishtowel and greets him in the living room. In this nearly perfect scene of hearth and home, who would believe that both Chaim and Oriah are completely blind?

Saying Goodbye

Oriah’s life-altering ordeal began 15 years ago when she was in her first year of high school in Afula, where she grew up within a secular family. One day in ninth grade, she woke up with blurred vision that wouldn’t clear, and subsequent tests indicated the shocking news: She was suffering from a rare degenerative eye disease that would totally destroy her vision within three months.

“As far as the doctors were concerned, the only thing to do was sit and wait for it to happen,” she says.

Not knowing when that unimaginable moment would come, the school assigned Oriah a shadow. “It was vital for me because I had blackouts every so often — I would lose my vision for a few minutes, and then it would come back. But it could happen again an hour or two later. I could never know if it was the last time I would see anything. Every time my vision returned after a blackout, it felt like a gift.

“I continued in school like this — I took tests because I had no choice, but my heart really wasn’t in it. At home, the atmosphere was bleak. My parents had been stunned by the news and no one knew how to console me. There was no way to help me, because the disease caused the area around my optic nerves and retinas to atrophy, and there was nothing to do to stop the process.” Ten weeks later, Oriah was completely blind.

Do You Have This Book?

It was during those excruciating weeks that Oriah remembers first thinking about G-d. “Once I integrated that there would be no reversal, I systematically walked through my house saying goodbye to all the familiar items and tried to etch everything into my mind. That’s when I came across a siddur — I guess we had one in the house, but I’d never paid attention before. And when I opened it the first thing I saw was the brachah of ‘Pokeach Ivrim.’ I was stunned. What? There was Someone who opens the eyes of the blind? And if He exists, where is He?

“Then,” she continues, “I began reading the entire siddur because I hoped maybe I’d find some more information. I read the whole thing cover to cover, while my brother was standing there snickering (‘Don’t you know they only say Kaddish at funerals?’) But I just kept going — Avinu Malkeinu, Chanukah, Purim, Succos. But I only found one other reference to ‘Pokeach Ivrim’ and that was in Nishmas. So I decided to take the siddur to one of the rabbanim in our city to help me solve the mystery. ‘Kevod HaRav,’ I said, ‘I brought something from my house. I don’t know if you have it, but it says here clearly that there’s Someone who opens the eyes of the blind…’

“The rabbi looked at me in surprise and said, ‘Why are you asking specifically about this?’ I told him about my condition and I saw that he was very shaken. Then he replied, ‘I can’t explain it to you all at once — these are very deep concepts. But I can tell you there’s a blindness that’s worse than what you are about to experience. It’s a spiritual blindness, when a person cannot see the reality of a Creator. But you, with G-d’s help, will know Who the Creator is and therefore, despite your blindness, you will be able to see.’

“I said to him, ‘What should I do in the meantime?’ And he told me to dress modestly, to respect my body and Hashem would heal it.

“That very day,” Oriah recalls, “I went with my mother to buy long skirts. I bought shirts with three-quarter length sleeves and decided to tie my hair back. My brothers warned my mother not to buy me too much new stuff because they were sure I was afflicted with the ‘teshuvah virus’ that attacks when people are sick. For me though, I guess I’ve been sick with it for the last 15 years.”

After she became totally blind, Oriah began studying at the Institute for the Blind in Jerusalem, which is officially a religious center. “They took me to tefillot and the dedicated staff enveloped me with unconditional love and warmth. They taught me to walk with a stick, to read Braille, and basically to function independently. I learned to cook and they even taught me to iron.”

After a year and a half of intensive rehabilitation, Oriah enrolled in an ulpanah, a religious high school, where she managed to complete most of her matriculation exams in Braille. “That was an incredible challenge, but I didn’t give up,” she remembers. “Solving equations in Braille is the most frustrating because you can’t see the numbers in front of your eyes. You just feel them, and if you miss a single digit you have to go back and start all over again.”

You Can Do Anything

Oriah met her Chaim six years ago, when they were both in their 20s and navigating the tricky path of shidduchim for special-needs frum adults. She approached the shidduch with some trepidation, though. Before meeting Chaim, she’d only met seeing men, yet that journey proved fruitless and frustrating. “I knew I wanted a boy who would take me because he recognized my strong points, not because he needed to compromise on something so he was taking a blind girl. When I met Chaim, from the first hello we knew that this was it. We just felt it.”

Reb Chaim Jerbi was born blind, and also has two blind sisters. “I’m forever grateful to my parents,” he says, reflecting on his childhood years. “HaKadosh Baruch Hu blessed me with a wonderful family. My parents always had full confidence in me and never limited me because of my blindness. I remember that as a child I wanted a bike, and my father didn’t say ‘no, because you’re blind.’ He took me to buy a bike and then, for many days after school, he took me to an open area that I slowly became familiar with. I rode there on the bike, and even on a skateboard. I also learned to play computer games by hearing, and my parents always emphasized that there’s no such thing as ‘I can’t,’ only ‘I don’t want to.’ My father once told me that if he would be allowed to, he’d even give me the car keys, because he was sure I’d be able to drive.”

While his family boosted his confidence, Reb Chaim admits that socially it was a bit of a different story. “Well, socially it was harder and I was the butt of a lot of teasing — that’s just how kids are. They would slap me, and then run away and say ‘If you don’t figure out who slapped you you’ll get another slap.’ It was painful but I learned to live with it. I also honed my other senses to the point where I could detect them by the heat of their hands before they slapped me, and I would twist their arm before they could get away. I refused to become a punching bag because of my disability.”

Chaim never knew another kind of life, and says that along with the frustration came a certain knowledge that he could achieve anything — even play music. He began tinkering with various instruments when he was little, and his parents never held him back. Today he has his own band and is proficient in ten different instruments.

“Not all of them are your typical piano and guitar though,” he says. “I play the oud — an oriental string instrument, the canon — an instrument with ninety strings, the violin, and a flute I’m crafting myself.”

When Chaim was 13, he began studying under poet and chazzan Avraham Azoulai, who introduced him to the world of chazzanus. And that was Reb Chaim’s first step toward a path of teshuvah.

Chaim grew up in a traditional family in Rishon LeZion, and although they weren’t strictly halachic, Jewish practice and custom were honored. “When I began appearing in chazzanut events, I would always wear a kippah,” Chaim says. “But eventually I felt like a hypocrite, like I was only doing it for the show and not like I actually believed in something. I didn’t want it to be like that, so one night I said to Hashem, ‘I don’t mind wearing a yarmulke and putting on tefillin, but I don’t want to do it only because I’m a chazzan. So please, if You really are somewhere, show me.’

“The very next day, I met someone who offered to learn with me, he said, ‘bechavruta.’ I asked him, what sefer is chavruta? He laughed and told me that it meant we would learn together. So I began for the first time in my life to learn Torah.”

Chaim says his parents were not unhappy about his spiritual movement. “They’re mesorati and appreciate Jewish tradition. Besides, they knew that as a as a secular blind person, chances were slim that I’d ever have a family. Instead I’d spend time at a club for the blind, and maybe would work half a day and kill the rest of the day at home. In the chareidi sector where everyone is involved in trying to help others create their homes, there aren’t so many cases where the pot remains without its cover.”

Their wedding, says Oriah, was remarkable. “Our friends decorated our walking sticks and Chaim’s band came out in full force. It felt like the whole world was there dancing with us.

“You know,” she adds candidly, “until I met Chaim, I never really made peace with this nisayon of blindness. But once we got married, I understood why Hashem had given me specifically this challenge, as if He were telling me, ‘Oriah, if you want an amazing husband, you have to give up on something.’ It’s clear to me that while this challenge is not easy by a long shot, it brought me to the life I have — now I know what I’m living for.”

Oriah, though, is an optimist by nature. Back during her first hospitalization before she became blind, the attending psychologists kept telling her to look at the half-full cup. “I told them that looking at the half-full cup is one option, but a better option is to pour the drink into a smaller cup and then it will always be full.”

Choosing Life

As we speak, Oriah turns off the oven so the challos won’t burn; Reb Chaim answers several phone calls and then goes into the bathroom to shower their young son Avraham Elazar and put him to sleep.

“We really function very normally,” he explains encouragingly when he comes back to join us. “We have lots of tools that make it easier for us, and to be blind in the 21st century isn’t like it was in the past.”

Still, cooking hasn’t changed too much. It still involves preparing food and putting iton a flame. How can you do that if you can’t see?

Oriah has a cleaning lady who helps her out with tasks like checking rice, but in general, “I have my ways to manage the cooking,” she says as I follow her into the kitchen. On her counter are all kinds of spices in containers. “Each box is labeled in Braille, and I just feel it and know what I need.”

Cooking, Oriah says, is not really so complicated. Frying is another story, though. “For example, frying patties or schnitzel is a very complex operation for me,” she relates. “But I don’t give up on it, and I flip the schnitzels with my fingers. To say that I don’t ever get a burn? That would be a stretch of the truth, but that’s how I have to cook. I have to feel if they’re ready. I also learned to touch the pots and, based on the heat, figure out when the food is ready. I thank Hashem that my cooking is up to standard, and that we even host guests quite often.”

Oriah admits that all her household duties take much longer than they would for a seeing person, “and sometimes,” she says, “there are days that I spend 12 hours on my feet cooking, doing laundry, ironing, folding, and playing with my son. But in the end, when I see that another week passes and the house is clean and my son is well-fed and my husband is wearing ironed shirts, it energizes me. Like any woman in charge of her home, I don’t have the option of saying that today I just won’t do laundry or cook.”

While Oriah holds down the home front, Reb Chaim is the family’s “outside” man. He learns in a kollel near their home in Kiryat Sefer, and he is also a chazzan, songwriter, musician, and has a wedding band. In addition, he administers energy treatments using a method called “Jewish healing,” a variation of Kinesiology which he says is effective for a variety of health problems, both physical and emotional, such as stomach pain, headaches, and even orthopedic problems.

As a healer, says Reb Chaim, not being able to see actually works to his advantage. “The idea is to use what’s inside you, not what you see on the outside. The fact that I don’t see helps me concentrate fully on the treatment.”

And even at home, Reb Chaim is an active partner. “I’m the ezer kenegdah,” he says. “I’m in charge of the logistics, such as paying bills on time, taking care of the bank account, mail, shopping, and all the other things that men normally are in charge of.”

But shopping? “It’s not a problem at all. I have a walking stick, and I have good friends who join me,” Reb Chaim says. Life taught him how to ask people for help and be honest about his needs. “It’s never been a problem for me to find a friend to help me shop or come with me on some other errand.

“People appreciate the honesty,” Reb Chaim continues, and then goes on to explain that if a blind person wants to be treated like an equal, he can’t emphasize his differences. “That means that if you meet a friend don’t tell him, ‘Yesterday at the bus stop I heard Shimon and he sends you regards.’ That makes it sound like you have a disability and need to be pitied. But if you say, ‘I met Shimon at the bus stop yesterday and he sends regards,’ people will treat you like any other person. I often meet blind people who complain that they’re not treated the way they would like to be. But I always tell them, ‘Don’t try to educate others, try to change yourself, and then your friends will adapt themselves to you.’ ”

Still, his message isn’t only for those with disabilities — he has one for “regular” people too. “It often happens that I’m a chazzan somewhere on Shabbat and later, when I’m sitting with a friend, someone comes over and says to my friend, ‘I really enjoyed him,’ and points at me. What, he thinks that if I don’t see then I don’t hear either? Or I could be sitting in a coffee shop and the waiter asks my friend, ‘What does he want to order?’ It amazes me each time — why can’t they just ask me?”

The Greatest Gift 

Although neither Oriah or Chaim can see, their experiences with sight are vastly different. Chaim never saw, so he’s never mourned a function most of us take for granted. But Oriah did, until age 15. In a way that makes functioning easier, but not necessarily less challenging.

“Our different experiences have given us each separate strengths,” Reb Chaim says. “For example, when it comes to many things related to home maintenance, she knows how to do them well because she knows what the end result is supposed to look like. Emotionally, though, because I never knew it any other way, it’s easier for me. Oriah often tells me how painful it is that she doesn’t know what our child looks like. But I’ve never seen anyone in my life — I can’t even imagine what sight is. I have an internal third eye, which means I see everything from the inside out.”

Oriah nods in agreement. ‘That’s true,” she says. “I’m always trying to remember things that I saw and to flip through the mental images so I shouldn’t forget them — because slowly they’re starting to fade. But sometimes, especially in dreams at night, I see things, literally see them, and it’s so nice because it carries me back to those early times.”

But although Oriah can’t see Avraham Elazar, the gift of a seeing child is her living miracle. For nearly five years they waited for him, and were told by genetic counselors that even if they were to have a child, the odds were that he, too, would be vision-impaired.

“At first I was indignant — who were they to determine my fate like that?” remembers Oriah. “But during the weeks preceding the birth, I was suddenly overcome by a strong sense of calm and total submission. I told Hashem in my tefillos, ‘Whatever gift You decide to grant us, I will accept it with love, and it makes no difference what kind of wrapping it comes in. A gift is a gift.’ ”

As soon as her son was born, she could no longer restrain herself and the first thing she asked the midwife was to check if he could see. “The midwife shined a flashlight in his eye to see if there was a reflex, and she cried, ‘Oriah, he’s healthy!’ I asked her for a cup of water, I washed my hands, and recited Mizmor L’todah with all my heart. Our room filled with hospital staff, the director of the department, secretaries, they all came and cried with us. It was such a kiddush Hashem. I said to all of them, ‘Look at these miracles. Hashem owes me nothing, so how can I possibly thank Him?’ ”

Still, they couldn’t be certain that the baby’s vision wasn’t impaired; but after about 40 days, he began tracking things with his eyes and the verdict was in — Avraham Elazar was given the gift of sight. Since Avraham Elazar’s birth, Oriah says a special light has entered their home. “It’s also a healing experience for both my parents and especially my in-laws, who now have a grandchild who sees.”

Still, how did they manage with the amazing gift of a healthy baby? “Well, we had lots of accessories that made it easier for us,” Oriah says. And her maternal instincts were her best weapon. “At first he suffered from severe reflux, but as his mother, I was able to figure it out without even seeing him. I was always able to feel a spasm coming on and know that in another minute, his little meal would come up.”

Oriah is able to dress her child in properly matching clothing with the help of an electric eye that tells her the color when she focuses it on the garment. “It just amazes me  how HaKadosh Baruch Hu gives even an inanimate object the ability to see, because if a piece of plastic placed on a shirt can tell me ‘the main color is blue,’ that helps me to accept the challenge Hashem gave me — because He also provided the tools for coping with it.”

Today Avraham Elazar is already four and, according to his mother, has a mature outlook about the situation at home. “He knows that Abba and Ima can’t see, and each time he wants to show me something he puts it into my hand. He also realizes that we need sticks to walk in the street, but he’s been born into this life and so it’s natural for him. We could be in the park and people stop and look at us. Avramy doesn’t get cowed and says with pride, ‘What are you staring at? These are my parents.’ ”

“I don’t believe he’s losing out on anything,” Reb Chaim adds. “He gets lots of attention, games, and toys, but that’s not the point. What really helps him not to feel different is the fact that we let him be a totally normal child. I will never turn him into my caregiver, asking him things like ‘Come help me, show me, pick this up for me,’ but I can tell him, ‘Avramy sweety, Mommy dropped an onion — can you pick it up for her?’ It’s a request that any mother whose hands are dirty while cooking can make of her child.”

But most of all, Avraham Elazar has taught his parents that blessings come in many forms. “The three of us sit together here in the living room, Chaim on the violin, me on guitar, and Avraham Elazar dancing to the music. What more could we ask for? Our life is perfect just the way it is.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 639)

Oops! We could not locate your form.