July 13, 2023
The children cluster around the chair, waiting tensely. Will it work?
Then the computerized voice rings out. “Mazel tov, children.”
The mother bites her lip, trying to keep back the tears. It’s been months since she heard her husband speak.
Disabilities are an unfortunate fact of life. We daven for good health, to daven, learn, and support our families without difficulty, but life can throw us unexpected curveballs.
We tend to see people with disabilities and assume that they can’t participate in the community, that they aren’t able to run businesses or learn with their children, not realizing that often, that’s not the case.
This child is blind; how can he be a part of the classroom?
He has ALS; he can’t communicate.
But others spend their days ensuring that no frum Jew with a disability is denied the experience of learning and teaching Torah.
Today, the frum visually impaired person or the family member who is unable to speak has a lifeline, a fountain of support and resources.
It’s a miracle called CSB CARE.
The name is misleading. CSB stands for “Computer Services for the Blind,” while the “CARE” part of the name is an acronym for “Computer-Assisted Reading Education,” but the services they provide go way beyond that.
It’s not even just the technical aspects that defy description. It’s the fact that everything they offer—from sefarim to hot lines to computers—comes along with heart.
And it’s easy to understand why. CSB’s goal is to make Torah accessible to all, and all efforts toward success are worthwhile.
Like any other student
There’s a 10-year-old boy sitting in a Lakewood classroom, raising his hand eagerly to answer his rebbi’s questions. He loves learning, gets 100s on his tests, and devours the Circle each week.
His magazine comes to him without any pictures, and he reads the Chumash with his fingers instead of his eyes. His siddur is printed in Braille.
Yet he’s part of the classroom, learns along with his classmates, and enjoys the same reading material they do.
What’s made that possible?
CSB prints Braille sefarim and siddurim, but there’s so much more. Each week, thanks to the generosity of the publishers who share the files, over 100 volumes of Mishpacha magazine, the Circle, and Toras Avigdor are sent out in braille and large print.
“We have some innovations that aren’t seen anywhere else,” Rabbi Nachum Lehman, director of CSB, explains.
A father of a visually impaired child once reached out to CSB with a burning question. “I want to learn with my son, but I don’t know how to read braille. What can I do?”
This question was later echoed by dozens of fathers as well as rebbe’im. How could they help a student keep up if they couldn’t read the braille volume?
The solution? Sefarim that are printed in braille with the regular print of each word displayed under each braille one. This way, anyone can read along with the child.
Another marvelous piece of technology is the electronic braille. The computers have a strip on the keypad that displays whatever is on the screen in braille. There’s a simple button that allows the user to move on, allowing the next line of print to appear under their fingers. A blind maggid shiur uses this technology daily to teach bachurim.
The eyes tell all
Unfortunately, today, most people are familiar with ALS, the progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects the nerve cells in the brain and causes the patient to slowly lose control over their movement.
As the body shuts down, one of the biggest challenges is the lack of ability to communicate. Without communication, someone with ALS is unable to express feelings, emotions, needs, and wants.
Thirty years ago, a miracle occurred. A life-changing innovation was introduced, opening up a window amid the hardship.
It’s a neis called an eye tracker.
“Hashem created the refuah before the makkah,” Rabbi Lehman says enthusiastically.
The idea behind it is simple; the technology less so. The patient uses their eyes to spell out words on a screen, and the computer speaks the words out.
However, until recently, a full 80 percent of the devices went unused because employing this technology requires a tremendous amount of training, support, and programming, and there was no way to supply that.
CSB stepped in to fill the gap. One of its most essential services is providing these missing components for ALS patients. In fact, CSB has become a world leader in this technology, to the point that national organizations have reached out for their assistance.
In addition to communicating with it, the technology allows the patient to look up sefarim with their eyes. They can instantly locate any spot in any maseches in Shas. More than one ALS patient has made a siyum haShas using CSB’s innovations. Many have written up divrei Torah using their eye-tracking device. Some have run their business with the eye tracker.
In fact, the Kaliver Rebbe has used CSB’s eye-tracking technology to raise tens of millions of dollars for French Jewry. Anyone who has been zocheh to receive a brachah from the Kaliver Rebbe in the last few years has gone home with a physical memento—the words of the brachah printed on a piece of paper that were written using his eyes.
For younger children who were born unable to speak or move, the eye technology is not just life-changing, it’s life building. CSB has developed eye tracking-accessible library books that the children can read easily on the computer, turning pages with their eyes. Many children in SCHI and the Center have benefited from CSB’s technology.
Holding their hands
Using the technology isn’t simple, though, which is why CSB members are always on call to help out when things are not going well.
“But it’s all worth it,” Rabbi Lehman maintains.
He recalls a story that stands out in his mind about the difference the eye tracker made.
“It took two years to get Akiva set up with the eye tracker, but he finally was able to use it, and with his einikel’s simchah coming up, Akiva planned on speaking using his eye tracker.”
But two days before the simchah, a problem arose with the device and Rabbi Lehman was called in to help. Akiva had two eye trackers, and Rabbi Lehman needed to move the speech over from one to the other. He grabbed one of his many memory sticks off his desk and ran over to the house.
“When I reached the house, I realized that the memory stick I had brought with me was full. I started looking through the files to see what I could delete.”
As he was scrolling, he stumbled on a file with Akiva’s name on it.
“I was blown away when I remembered what was on there.”
Years before, when he was originally diagnosed, Akiva spent hours recording messages in preparation for the days when he wouldn’t be able to speak. He recorded phrases like mazel tov, brachos, and his children’s names.
“We had been so busy trying to help Akiva master the eye-tracking system and speak with it that we’d completely forgotten about this file of recorded messages.”
Akiva, his wife, and Rabbi Lehman realized that Hashem has given him a special gift.
That night there were two speeches given by Akiva. One was his prepared speech delivered via his eye tracker and computer. After he finished speaking, he said, “I’d like to add one thing.”
Then he gave another speech, one that sounded completely natural—a compilation of his previously recorded messages. It was a surprise to all his guests. At the end, slowly and with fervor, he sang “Chasdei Hashem Ki Lo Samnu,” his trademark song at each simchah—which he’d recorded years before.
Improving every day
Typically, the voice that emerges from the eye tracker is robotic and unpleasant to listen to. But the technology keeps getting better. One innovation that is constantly being improved is the voice banking system. CSB encourages people who are recently diagnosed with ALS to record their voice. With the help of AI, the voice that is heard from the eye tracker can actually sound like the patient’s voice.
It’s a situation that nobody wants to be in, but for those who find themselves there, CSB is with them every step of the way to smooth the path as much as possible.
The list of services that CSB provides is dizzying, the technology growing ever more sophisticated. But there are no plans of stopping. Each year, another list of updates is released, more projects are worked on, and more research is done so that more people can be helped.
Today, the person with physical limitations can learn, teach, and write—because Torah is accessible to all.
Five surprising facts about Hebrew braille
- It’s read from left to right.
- There are no “end” letters. A mem at the end of the word feels like a regular mem.
- The sin and shin are completely different characters.
- The nekudos are not at the bottom; they’re after the letters.
- There’s no shva.
Other CSB services
- Large print: Sefarim and magazines are offered in large print for older people or those with weak eyesight. The testing is streamlined to quickly discover the required size.
- Zmanim hotline: This was created for a blind man who davened vasikin each morning, but its growth spread to such a degree that it receives 2 million calls annually.
- Hebrew-English sefarim in Braille: The reader can read English and Hebrew at the same time. CSB has just finished putting the entire Sefer Tehillim into this format.