| Magazine Feature |

Crystal Clear

Lavi Greenspan went blind at age 26, but the challenge opened new vistas  that he hadn’t seen before

Photos: Naftoli Goldgrab

Imagine a 26-year-old single man poised to begin a legal career and a semichah program who suddenly learns he needs a major operation — and then another.

And another and another. One complication creates another, requiring yet more surgery. And when the disease finally abates, he’s left without any sight.

Lavi Greenspan, now 51, has spent half his life as a sighted person, and almost half his life without sight. It hasn’t been an easy path. Yet he’s doggedly maintained a positive outlook and unflagging emunah, and his ahavas Torah, ability to connect with others, and overflowing ahavas Yisrael have made him a magnet for Jews in search of chizuk and inspiration. When he and his bashert, Nechama, were married this past November, after decades of searching, the guests included Rav Herschel Schacter, Rav Yerucham Olshin, Rabbi Dovid Breslauer, Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetsky, and Rabbi Moshe Katzenstein, in addition to hundreds of Lavi’s “best friends.”

 Lavi and Nechama have moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Kew Gardens Hills, but since he has a regular Sunday chavrusa in Brooklyn, we meet at my home. Nechama drove him in, and sits with us as we speak.

A solidly built man of medium height, Lavi is clean-shaven and dressed in regulation yeshivish black pants and white shirt. He tells me a little about his childhood, in Hillcrest, Queens, with his parents, brother, and sister. His father was a social worker, and his Israeli-born mother went back to school once her children were grown to earn a law degree. Lavi attended Yeshiva of Central Queens for elementary school, followed by mesivta at Yeshivah of Flatbush, Keren B’Yavneh in Israel, then Yeshiva University, where he became close to Rabbi Yehuda Parnes, whom he considers his rebbi. When selecting a profession, he chose law, because it seemed a practical career path for a young Jewish man, and was accepted to Fordham Law.

During his first semester of law school, in the fall of 1994, he began feeling thirsty all the time — a symptom that is often indicative of diabetes. A doctor advised, “If the symptoms don’t go away in a month, come back.”

The symptoms didn’t abate, but it turned out there was nothing wrong with his pancreas. Ultimately, Dr. Alice Levine at Mount Sinai Hospital diagnosed Lavi with Cushing’s disease, caused by a benign growth on the pituitary gland, which created the diabetes-like symptoms. The tumor had to come out before it grew any larger, in a brain surgery that would take almost ten hours.

Lavi had never had surgery before and was so terrified that he needed an anti-anxiety pill. Rabbi Parnes was given permission to visit him afterwards in the ICU, despite hospital rules to the contrary, by telling the nurses he was Lavi’s rabbi. They only let him stay a minute, but seeing his rebbi’s face and hearing the words, “Lavi, I’m here for you,” were an immense comfort to him.

“My parents call him our angel,” Lavi says.

The surgery was deemed successful, yet a second operation was necessary to remove the remainder of the tumor — this one only six hours long — that proceeded through the nose. While it was also pronounced successful, two weeks later Lavi was unsure about the amount of fluid coming through the nose. The doctors determined he was leaking cerebrospinal fluid, which required another four-hour surgery through the nose. When he woke up, he thought he was still leaking. The doctors thought it was just dried blood, but when they later removed the dressings, they realized he was leaking cerebrospinal fluid again. Another six-hour, open-head brain surgery was required to address the problem.

When it was over, doctors told him that he would no longer have 20/20 vision, because the optic nerve had been touched, but the damage would be temporary. His vision did indeed return a few months later. But he couldn’t open his mouth fully when he ate, another consequence of the surgery. Yet another surgery — outpatient this time — fixed the problem, and he then had to undergo five weeks of radiation treatment, which fortunately went well for him — no nausea or hair loss. He took some time off from law school, returning in January 1996.

By 1997, two years after his first surgery, Lavi began to notice that his vision wasn’t what it should be. That August, on a trip to St. Louis for a friend’s wedding, he hit a garage wall with his car. Shortly afterward, while driving on the Van Wyck Expressway, he narrowly avoided an accident when he cut off another car that he just hadn’t seen. A visit to Dr. Joe Mindel, a neuro-ophthalmologist at Mount Sinai, confirmed that he’d lost vision in one eye, and would fully lose vision in both eyes.

After extensive research, Lavi’s parents found Dr. Scott Forman, a neuro-ophthalmology specialist affiliated with Westchester Medical Center, who recommended giving him hyperbaric oxygen treatments to preserve whatever eyesight was left. Lavi didn’t dwell too much on the prospect that he could still lose his sight completely.

“I was too preoccupied with law school and passing the bar,” he says.

Unfortunately, the hyperbaric treatments had to be interrupted one day when a nurse, doing a routine temperature check, found it to be 103 and wouldn’t let him go home. The fever quickly shot up to 105, and Lavi was diagnosed with meningitis, an occasional consequence of brain surgeries. He spent two days unconscious, and was transferred back to Mount Sinai for another operation. But the hiatus in the hyperbaric oxygen treatment caused his eyes to deteriorate further, and once back on his feet, he lived in fear that his vision might suddenly fail him unexpectedly.

The last thing he saw was the “Don’t Walk” traffic light as he walked from law school to Minchah one day. Then the curtain dropped. By Chanukah of 1997, Lavi was completely blind, and needed his father to guide his hand to light his menorah. He was one semester away from taking the bar exam.

How does a formerly sighted person recalibrate when his life goals are so wildly upended by blindness?

First, as the old song goes, you get by with a little help from your friends. Passing the bar was Lavi’s primary goal at that time, and the Bar Association was legally required to administer the exam orally for students without sight. Rebbetzin Esther Krauss, the rebbetzin of the Young Israel of Hillcrest shul that Lavi attended, and another community member recruited a group of 30 lawyers to review the material with him in the weeks remaining before the bar. Incredibly, Lavi passed the exam on his first try.

He even found a job: IDT in New Jersey offered him a position reviewing contracts. A colleague from Queens gave him a ride there three days a week, and owner Howard Jonas paid for a car to bring him home at night. Another employee would read him the contracts.

“That’s much better than listening to computer-generated readings,” Lavi says, “because human inflections communicate the content better.”

During this time he also began studying for semichah through Yeshiva University, reviewing the Gemara through tapes and the Shulchan Aruch with his friend Evan Kroll.

When the recession hit, Lavi found himself laid off along with some of his IDT colleagues.

“He was one of the last people laid off,” says Rabbi Moshe Schorr, a friend of Lavi’s who teaches in Lakewood.

He decided to go back to school at Rebbetzin Bulka’s New Seminary program for an MSW, and then found employment at Yeshiva Tifereth Moshe in Queens. His charges are young, and he’s called on to deal with behavioral issues and home issues. When the boys get out of line, he tries to point out that they’re only hurting themselves.

“This week I saw some success with an eighth-grader,” he says. “He told me, ‘I’m listening to you now. I’m behaving better.’ ”

Lavi has faced a steep learning curve learning to negotiate a world designed for sighted people. A New York organization called the Lighthouse for the Blind gave Lavi training in how to manage daily living activities. He learned to organize his closets and cupboards meticulously, so he could find the right shirt to go with the right pants, and find his way around the kitchen.

“Lavi’s the one who would always set the table for breakfast at his parents’ house, as a form of kibbud av v’eim,” Nechama adds.

He learned to use a cane on city streets, although he hesitates to use public transportation, and unfortunately his fear of dogs prevents him from acquiring a service dog.

He uses a flip phone, because the buttons are easy for a sightless person to identify.

“Then there’s this,” Lavi says, holding out his arm to display his talking watch. “It’s great; it can call people when I need help — when I need a ride, when I want them to put something in a chat for me. It can even order things online. Baruch Hashem, I have a huge network.”

Nachum Lehman, the founder of CSB Care (Computer Services for the Blind, which provides services for patients with ALS and other disabilities), approached Lavi with offers of help. Lavi has availed himself of JAWS, a computer program that reads text from the screen. It reads not only the page you’re on, but reads back what you’ve typed so that you can check your messages for accuracy. But he hasn’t learned Braille, which limits him.

“Nachum told me it would take a year to master it, and I knew it would be much harder to pick it up at my age, so I never got into it,” Lavi explains.

Nachum wishes he would, though, since it would give him many more options in terms of reading material, both Jewish and secular (especially on Shabbos) and, with today’s Braille keyboards, make computer use faster and easier.

Despite all the skills training Lavi has received, he still makes mistakes, which he accepts with grace and a robust sense of humor. He’s able to laugh about the time he bumped into a garbage can and apologized to it profusely, or had to be led back to the men’s section in shul when he mistakenly began praying in the women’s section.

“I was once in Boro Park in the Mostly Music store, and I was tapping a little chassidic boy on the head,” he relates. “Or so I thought. Then I was told I’d been tapping a 93-year-old woman, who was not amused! But if I’ve learned one thing being blind, it’s that you only have to be embarrassed in front of Hashem, not people.”

He doesn’t like it when people are overprotective of him. “It makes me feel belittled,” he says.

His lack of sight did almost get him killed one Taanis Esther night in Queens when he was out with some friends. It was 2011, and they were out collecting money door to door. Suddenly the group was set upon by three muggers. Lavi couldn’t see who was assaulting him; he simply felt a hand in his pocket and assumed someone was playing around with him, so he fought back. He didn’t even realize the person was holding a gun to his head. By a miracle, the man moved on and left him alone, and all the thieves got from him were $160 and a cell phone. (His friends lost money, cell phones and car keys.) A woman passing in a car stopped to help, and the police arrived soon after. It turned out these muggers were responsible for a string of thefts and had even killed a woman three days earlier. (They were later caught).

“I guess Hashem decreed that they shouldn’t kill me,” Lavi says.

Since losing his sight, Lavi finds that his memory, as well as his senses of hearing and smell, have become heightened. He retains more than 200 phone numbers in his memory, proving the point by reciting my number perfectly, even though we’ve only spoken two or three times by phone so far. His hearing is so sensitive that he sits in the back at shul, because otherwise the davening is too loud for him.

Once, he relates, he heard a beeping-like sound in his parents’ home that no one else seemed to hear. Finally, by closing her eyes and really focusing, his mother also heard the noise and guessed it was in the kitchen. Looking under the sink, she touched the pipe, and it disintegrated in her hands; the “beeping” was the noise of water hitting the pipe.

Another time, he was in his parents’ house in the morning and he smelled smoke.

“It must be from the barbecue the neighbor had last night,” his mother said.

A couple of hours later, when she went out to take out the garbage, she saw that the house next door was on fire.

Lavi’s spatial orientation and mental maps have also remained intact. When in a car with others, he can often direct them where to go.

Lavi doesn’t question his plight, nor is he bitter.

“I’ve felt mad maybe 20 or 25 times in 25 years,” he says. “But Hashem is our Father. How can I be mad at my father? Hashem loves me. We don’t see the whole picture.”

Struck blind in December, by the next month already he had begun strengthening his faith by saying, “Hashem, I love You,” and concentrating on what he has, not what he lacks.

While being blind is clearly a major challenge, it has certain advantages.

“My love of Torah has increased since I lost my sight,” Lavi says. “There is so much improper stuff to see in the world today, and I’m happy I can’t see it.”

“Lavi sees the pintele Yid in everyone,” Nechama says. “Everyone’s his best friend, and his friends are people of all types.”

“I do see colors in front of my eyes sometimes,” Lavi says. “Right now, for example, I see brown and green. But maybe it’s my imagination.”

At other times, he clearly sees the letters of Hashem’s Name in front of his eyes, such as when the kehillah sings Lecha Dodi on Friday nights.

Sometimes he believes Hashem sends him extra help. For example, he once went to take a candy from the dish his mother keeps on the dining room table. But when he got to the table, it wasn’t there; someone had moved it. Frustrated, he sat down, and suddenly the image of a finger pointing left appeared in front of his eyes. He followed the finger to a side table, and there was the candy dish.

He sees siyata d’Shmaya in other random incidents too, like the time he dropped a battery he needed and it rolled away from him. As he sat there thinking, Hashem, I know this is a test from You. The battery suddenly stopped, reversed course, and rolled back to him. Another time he returned to the friend’s place where he was staying for Shabbos, and found the door locked, though he’d been told it would be open. Lavi decided to try again, saying the blessing “Hashem opens our eyes,” and the door suddenly opened.

But he candidly admits that his situation isn’t easy, and there have been times it made him depressed, although “never to the point where I couldn’t get out of bed or function,” he says. He handles his loss by trying to stay positive, and seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty.

He likes to recount a story he heard from Rabbi Paysach Krohn of a Jewish man who was shot during the 1970 Kent State University riot and was paralyzed from the neck down. When his rosh yeshivah went to visit him — sent by the man’s father, who was still too upset to come — he found him smiling.

“How can you smile after all this?” he said.

The young man responded, “There’s a guy in the next room who eats a whole tub of ice cream every day, then he puts the bucket on top of his head. I’m so happy I didn’t end up like him.”

“Before I go to sleep at night, I try to think of three good things that happened to me that day,” Lavi says.

He’s made it a goal to make other people smile and be happy.

“He’s a fun person, which is one reason people like to invite him,” Nechama says.

Naturally, he misses seeing the faces of his loved ones, and wishes he could see what his wife looks like.

“I don’t even know what I myself look like!” he remarks.

He wishes he could gaze at Shabbos candles, and especially misses being able to look inside seforim.

“Learning them orally isn’t the same as opening a sefer and learning inside it,” he laments.

Yet despite his lack of sight, he still loves going to bookstores, especially in Boro Park, a neighborhood he loves for its authentic Jewish feel. The staff at Biegeleisen and Zundel Berman all know him, and come forward to apprise him of the latest seforim releases.

While other people collect stamps or antiques, Lavi Greenspan collects gedolim.

“They represent Torah,” he states.

He used to eat Shabbos meals at the home of the Novominsker Rebbe ztz”l, as well as at the homes of Rav Malkiel Kotler, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel ztz”l, and many others. All of them showed him tremendous kavod; the Novominsker once waited half an hour for him to begin the meal; Rav Malkiel insisted on ushering him into the house himself; and Rav Nosson Tzvi struggled to get up to escort him out. His hero is Rav Moshe Feinstein, “for his love of Torah, his love of Yidden, and his middos,” Lavi says.

“Lavi calls gedolim all over the world, just to hear their Torah,” says friend Rabbi Moshe Schorr. “He was one of the last people to speak to Rav Elya Baruch Finkel ztz”l before he had his heart attack. Lavi always asks rabbanim to tell him divrei Torah, something on the parshah, or mussar he can grow from.

“He once called a rosh yeshivah’s home, and identified himself as ‘the blind guy.’ The rosh yeshivah passed the call to his wife, thinking his wife had ordered new blinds for their house! They figured it out quickly, though.”

Ira Suss, another friend, met Lavi when he was learning in Eretz Yisrael and was assigned to accompany him around over a Shabbos. The two have been close ever since. Ira characterizes Lavi as “one of the most sincere and caring people” he knows.

“When we hear about a tragedy like someone losing a child or a young spouse, most of us feel bad, but forget about it a few weeks later,” Ira says. “Not Lavi. He compiles lists of these people and calls them every week to say good Shabbos. I know of at least seven almanos he calls, and maybe 15 other people who have suffered tragedies, and that’s probably just the tip of the iceberg. That’s in addition to his several chavrusas and the 30 halachos he learns daily.”

“He gives people the most amazing brachos — they can go on for five minutes,” says Rabbi Moshe Schorr.

I witnessed this myself: Before leaving, Lavi gave me a brachah that was so lengthy, comprehensive, and heartfelt it brought tears to my eyes. Somehow he sensed it, because immediately afterward he asked mechilah — repeatedly — for having made me cry.

“I wasn’t sad,” I told him. “Just very moved.”

It’s hard enough for typical young people to find their zivug. Add in a disability, and splitting the sea becomes an almost-insurmountable challenge. Lavi’s search for a wife has been long and discouraging. He began shidduchim when he was 28 and endured many a no. His parents were ever supportive, encouraging him to try again each time there was a disappointment.

“Lavi would always tell me he dreamed of a Shabbos table full of singing children,” Rabbi Schorr says.

Last winter, after hearing that people had found yeshuos in shidduchim after praying at the tziyun of Rav Eliyahu Yosef Rabinowitz ztz”l in Buffalo, Lavi and a friend made the trip. Rav Rabinowitz, who came to Buffalo in 1908 to serve as the rav of a shul, strove to strengthen Yiddishkeit there and particularly to alleviate the plight of almanos (see Mishpacha’s For the Record column, issue #813). Two weeks later, when Lavi decided to reach out to shadchanim again, five responded with alacrity.

One of them reached out to Nechama Darrow, who had grown up in a religious Christian family but found her own winding path to Yiddishkeit. A truth seeker, Nechama had first made her way to a messianic group that claimed to represent Orthodox Judaism and observe halachah. There she learned quite a bit about Jewish practice and was given an ersatz conversion. But as she began to get her hands on authentic Torah reading, she realized something was very wrong.

“I felt sick to my stomach,” she says. “After ten years of thinking I was Jewish, I had an identity crisis.”

She had to wait six months before Rav Tzvi Steinberg in Denver accepted her for conversion, but after that, things moved quickly because she’d already amassed so much knowledge. At the time that Lavi was proposed as a shidduch, she was working in the administrative office of Yeshivas Toras Chaim of Denver and serving as the associate treasurer of her shul.

The shadchan sent Nechama a podcast featuring an interview with Lavi along with his résumé. Nechama was interested.

“I saw how special Lavi is,” she says, “and I wanted us to be able to speak and give it a chance.”

Things looked promising; the shadchan reported that Lavi was 95 percent interested. Then, to her dismay, the shadchan told her it was over before it had begun.

“You’re a giyores,” the shadchan said by way of explanation, “and it would be too hard to connect with a guy who’s frum from birth.”

But Nechama had already learned not to take no for an answer when she applied to convert in Denver. She told the shadchan, “This isn’t logical. You reached out to me, not vice versa, and you said it was 95 percent sure. This discounts who I am as a person! Please speak to my references again.”

She davened the entire sefer Tehillim that night. That Sunday, she got her yes. They dated for three months, much of it on the phone. One date had to be postponed because Lavi hit his head so hard against a wall that Hatzolah had to be called. Nechama flew in a few times, and Lavi went to Denver for the engagement party. After setting a wedding date, they saw a clear sign of Hashgachah pratis: It fell on the yahrzeit of Rav Eliyahu Yosef Rabinowitz of Buffalo.

The wedding itself was an explosion of joy, attended by a host of gedolim and hundreds of friends and family. As chassan and kallah stood under the chuppah, a friend of Lavi’s read a speech he had written. In the almost ten-minute-long speech, Lavi thanked all his rabbis, friends, and Rabbi Parnes (whose shining face he’d always imagined at his wedding, but who was not well enough to attend). The speech was interspersed with Nechama’s thanks to Rabbi Steinberg and other significant people in her life. Video clips of the chasunah quickly went viral.

Lavi and Nechama have set up house in Kew Gardens Hills in a complex he’s familiar with and where some of his friends already reside. Nechama’s adjusting to married, “in-town” life, and says Lavi’s family’s warm reception has gone a long way toward making her feel at home.

“I always hoped to marry someone with a frum family,” she says. “Since I can’t offer that from my side, I wanted my husband’s side to make that available for our children. We’ll have family to gather with for the holidays.

“But now that I married Lavi, I feel like I acquired the entire Jewish People as my family.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 956)

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