| Family First Feature |

Out of the Darkness

Judy Bron lost her sight at 32, but she didn’t succumb to darkness, instead living a full life of strength, positivity, and faith

I’m watching a video I’ve been sent by Mrs. Judy Bron’s family. It’s filmed in a small room, where more than a half-dozen family members are gathered in between the computer desk, bed, and bookshelf. In the background you can see someone holding a golden-haired toddler. There’s an atmosphere of cheerful banter.

The video shifts angle to reveal a comfortable wine-colored recliner where the regal family matriarch sits in a robe and turban. Her face, clear of any makeup, shines with happiness as those present sing “Hamalach Hagoel,” and she mouths the words along with them.

Is this simply a heartwarming tableaux of Yiddishe nachas? An inspiring memory of a beloved mother and grandmother? Yes, but it’s also a testament to the gevurah, emunah, and positivity that Mrs. Judy Bron embodied throughout her life. You would never know from the joy she’s radiating in this video that Mrs. Bron suffered from multiple sclerosis (MS), was ill with cancer, and was blind, unable to physically see any of this beautiful family gathering.

The Early Years

Judy Bron and her husband, Nissen Mordechai, married and started their family in Buffalo, New York, where all their five children were born. Judy earned a degree in social work from the University of Buffalo, where she was involved on a leadership level in the Hillel, but ultimately chose a career as a Yiddishe mama.

Judy was a capable, involved mother, heading school fundraiser programs, PTA initiatives, and taking care of the chalav Yisrael milk and kosher-meat orders in Buffalo, in addition to doing carpool, cooking, baking, shopping, and otherwise caring for her growing family.

When her fourth child, Miriam, was nine months old, Judy was diagnosed with MS, an unpredictable disease of the central nervous system. The disease affects everyone differently: Some people lose the ability to walk unassisted, or at all. Slurred speech, fatigue, dizziness, and vision problems are common symptoms. There is no cure.

A few months after the birth of her fifth child, at the age of 32, her MS took a turn for the worse, and Judy went blind.

Judy had experienced fuzziness in her vision before, says her daughter Esther, and they were hoping this blindness was just a temporary loss of vision. But once she realized her blindness was permanent, Judy was, understandably, very emotionally affected, to the extent it was difficult for her to function.

In Buffalo, they had family assistance, but the children were getting older and the chinuch opportunities were limited, so the Brons picked up and moved to Monsey. Due to the emotional and physical repercussions of their mother’s blindness and being more or less alone in a new community, the family went through an extremely difficult period. This was in the days before the services for struggling families in Monsey were as well established as they are today.

“It was definitely hard. As the oldest child, I had to assume a much greater role. And once we moved to Monsey, I assumed it all,” says Esther, who was in sixth grade when they made the move. “Basically, I did the laundry, and the cleaning, and the cooking for a little while.” She also took care of the needs of the younger children.

The Comeback

But then, after a few difficult years of emotional distress, in which she didn’t function the way she wanted to, in an incredible show of the gevurah she was known for, Judy completely turned things around.

She relearned how to go shopping, to bake, to cook, and became as independent as she could be. Once she started walking with a stick, she went everywhere, even though it was very uncommon at the time to see anyone with a disability walking around with a cane. Her youngest son, Zac, remembers how children would stare when they were out. “But I didn’t accept the idea that I should be ashamed,” he says. “We just lived with it and carried on with it.”

Her cooking and baking were done by feel, and with some family teamwork. Her children put a lumpy sticker on the 350-degree mark on the oven dial so she could feel where to turn the knob. They did the same thing for the timer, creating marks so she could tell what time was what. She knew which containers held which ingredients. While she did require some assistance from her children for cleanup, they accepted that as just part of life. Her daughter Esther made a tape of all her recipes, which for years served as her mother’s cookbook.

“She could’ve gone the ‘I’m blind, I’m handicapped’ route,” says her daughter Miriam. “But she never believed in going that way. Her attitude was, ‘If you have a headache, you take three Motrin and move on with your life.’ ”

Obviously, being blind is very different than having a headache, but Judy didn’t view that as an impediment. Her blindness became simply an obstacle to overcome. “The single most distinctive quality she had was that regardless of how beaten down she got by what happened, she didn’t give in, she didn’t settle,” says Zac.

“The words ‘I can’t do it’ truly, 90 percent of the time, didn’t enter her mind,” says Esther. “Her handicap stopped her, obviously, from certain things, but nothing got in the way of her trying to live the most normal life as possible.”

“She did as much as she could, and she sometimes went beyond her limits. And she did it through lots of pain. It couldn’t have been easy, it wasn’t easy,” says Miriam. One year, she remembers, she called her mother on Erev Shemini Atzeres to wish her good Yom Tov, and to ask how she was doing. She noticed her mother didn’t sound great, and said as much. Her mother admitted she’d had a fall, but reassured her daughter that she’d be fine.

The next day, Miriam’s nephews came over to her and told her that her mother had been taken to the hospital. She’d been having difficulty breathing due to the pain, and it turned out that she’d fractured two ribs in her fall. “And she had cooked the whole Yom Tov like that! She was a strong-willed person.”

Living Life to the Hilt

Judy’s life was very full. She didn’t limit herself to the confines of her home — or even the confines of Monsey. For a while, she hosted a radio show on WLIR 1300 on politics, which she loved. She got a typewriter, learned to type again, and started writing articles. Girls who came from local high schools for chesed were enlisted to proofread her drafts.

Eventually, through the New York State Commission for the Blind, Judy received an adaptive computer that spoke. The commission also offered computer classes, which Judy took. She taught herself how to use the Internet, and went further with her writing. There was even a write up about her in the New York Times.

Judy wrote two books, one for teenage girls called Pessi; a Story of Trial, Courage and Chesed (Proud to be Me), wrote many articles for local publications like Community Connections in Monsey, and was also published in Binah magazine. All these accomplishments are impressive on their own, but when put into context — that Judy did all this without being able to see — they become extraordinary.

She was open about her disability and shared her experiences in various ways. When one of her granddaughters was learning about eyes in school, Judy came in and spoke to the class about her blindness. For a time, she visited clinics to speak with children who were also suffering from disabilities, remembers Zac.

“She wasn’t going to become a victim of her illness, she was going to overcome it and maximize her life,” said a close friend.

Judy’s children all live in Monsey. She was very devoted to them, and they to her. Every Friday night, except if there was bad weather or if someone wasn’t feeling well, she would go to her daughter Esther, who lived just around the corner, for the seudah. Every Shabbos morning, she would return for coffee, cake, and lots of schmoozing. As Esther’s children grew, they joined in this ritual, and it became a treasured part of their Shabbos.

During the summer, her son Moshe would accompany her to the Pirkei Avos shiur she enjoyed, since it required walking through a tricky shortcut.

She loved her grandchildren like each one was the only one, and was very in tune with them. She would notice little details, like how a little grandchild enjoyed the way a new boot tapped on the ground while walking. She would take the grandchildren on outings during vacation, and took pleasure in shopping for Chanukah presents and selecting just the right gift for each grandchild. She regularly hosted grandchildren for Shabbos, taking care to make the foods she knew they liked.

Each grandchild felt so clearly they were her favorite, Esther recounts, that once they all got into an argument about it, each completely certain they were, in fact, that special one.

Judy lived for simchahs. “Every time we called her when we had a baby, it was as if we’d just had our first,” remembers Esther. “The enthusiasm of her mazel tov never changed. She mamash yelled with joy. She was always on a high about it. When it came to my children’s bar mitzvahs, she was busy planning them with me, before I was even ready to plan them. She came with the same excitement to each one as she did to the first. Simchahs were her thing. They gave her simchas hachayim.”

“She always insisted on making something for the annual Chanukah party,

whether it was a salad or whatever. She had to contribute somehow, in whichever way she could,” says Moshe.

Judy also had a special connection to Shabbos and Yom Tov. She faithfully went to shul every Shabbos Mevarechim and Shabbos Chazak. When her husband wasn’t available to walk with her, she would walk on her own, with her stick.

A joke in the family was that as soon as Tishah B’Av was over, she would ask, “Okay, who’s coming to me for Rosh Hashanah?” She made honey cake every Tishah B’Av and had the kids pick it up to take home and freeze.

She would plan Yom Tov way in advance, often calling the kids five weeks before a holiday to see who was coming. Making Pesach and Yom Tov at home wasn’t even a question; of course she wouldn’t go away. Often, she started preparations long before her friends even did. One close friend shared that before she even knew what day Yom Tov was going to fall out on, Judy had already finished all her cooking! “Nothing was an effort for her to prepare, it was all  a pleasure,” she remembers.

For many years, Judy organized the Kiddush in shul for Shavuos, which meant calling 20 or so women and arranging for them to bring cakes.

Radiating Joy

Before the last Rosh Hashanah of her life, when she’d been diagnosed with cancer and was exhausted from the chemotherapy treatments, her son Moshe knew his mother would miss making challah. He arranged that her grandchildren would make the dough, and his mother would make the brachah and be mafrish the challah. He took a video of this special moment. Watching it, you can see the pleasure Judy gets as she feels her way around the challah tins to brush the egg on top. Hearing her witty banter and seeing her smile, you wouldn’t have known she was sick.

“Her children were amazing,” remarked a close friend. “They kept her dignity and her morale and her place in society. They kept her place as matriarch.”

At their parents’ 40th wedding anniversary, the family got together on Shabbos and the children shared something they’d written about the advantages of having a blind mother, such as never actually having to make your bed, or being able to take extra candy. “At the end of the day, she did a phenomenal job,” says Esther.

“She was very cheerful. She always had a smile on her face,” recounts a close friend. “She had a lot of disappointments, but she was still a happy person. You can’t relate to some people because they’re just so cheerful and smiley and everything is always amazing. She was a realistic person, she was grounded, she didn’t have that nature of looking over the fence at what others had, even though there was so much she was lacking. She lived such a happy existence.”

“My mother was a very happy person,” says Miriam. “My friends all remember her always being happy and being positive.”

She was happy and positive, but also very direct. “She would tell people exactly what she thought, and sometimes it stung and sometimes it was funny,” remembers Zac.

This positive attitude even extended to how Judy viewed her disability. She would remark that most people judge others from the outside in, but Hashem had made it easy for her not to judge people based on what they looked like.

Miriam remembers her saying how she was grateful the MS took her vision and not her mobility. Judy credits her mobility to a brachah she received from the Bluzhover Rebbetzin. After her initial diagnosis, the Brons went down to see the Bluzhover Rebbe ztz”l in Boro Park. In those days, when the husband went into the Rebbe, the wife went into the Rebbetzin. Judy went in, holding her youngest daughter, and the Rebbetzin bentshed her over and over again in Yiddish, “You should dance at her wedding, you should dance at her wedding.”

“When her condition deteriorated, the doctors said, ‘When it hits with this force, there’s no way in this world you will be walking. It’s not a possibility.’ My mother believed until the day she died that the only reason she was able to walk was because of the Rebbetzin’s brachah,” Moshe recounts.

As soon as Judy got out of the hospital following the birth of her youngest, she drove back down to Brooklyn and asked the Rebbetzin for another brachah. “I want to dance at his wedding, too,” she said. And she did.

Despite her incredible depths of courage, positivity, and faith, she was also “just normal, just regular,” says a close friend. “She didn’t give off the impression of someone who was really working on themselves. She was relatable and yet had such hakaras hatov for every visit, every kindness.”

Judy was sick with cancer for 13 months. During that time, her family was virtually always with her — and in the pockets of time when they couldn’t be there, there were volunteers who came to be with her. Even when Judy wasn’t doing well, and in pain, she always made the volunteers feel so valued.

One volunteer called Judy before Pesach and told her she wanted to buy her a present. Judy replied, “You don’t have to buy me anything. Your friendship is worth more than diamonds.”

The nurses always said that if Judy ever had a bad day, she apologized for it, and she tried to have more good days than bad.

Esther remembers her mother’s concern with carefully following halachah when it came to medical choices. Toward the end, when the topic of potential intubation was brought up, Judy’s only question was, “Is it mutar?” She held on for two and a half weeks after being intubated, and was nifteres on Shabbos.

Not just any Shabbos but Shabbos Mevarechim and Shabbos Chazak, the two Shabbosim that meant so much to her.

Shortly before her petirah, Judy made a video that she instructed should be shown to her children after her passing. In the video, she says, with some effort, “Hi. I’ve been ill for a while, and I just wanted to share with you a thought: We have so many things that we do. I always told everybody I’m a very boring person, and I like being very ordinary. We don’t even think to thank Hashem when we do something so natural, like get out of the chair and walk to the other room. It’s something ordinary! We do it, but you don’t think how thankful you have to be to Hashem that you can do these ordinary things. Every day, and it just comes naturally, you get up and walk, you have to use the bathroom, you just go, you just walk, you do ordinary things, you think ‘yep, same old boring me.’ It’s not boring, be thankful.”

That was Mrs. Judy Bron, not boring or ordinary at all.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 742)

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