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A New Light

Hadas Afik

Both blind, Reb Chaim and Oriah Jerbi have never let the darkness prevent them from embracing the light. Today, the musician and his wife illuminate the way

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

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NO SUCH THING AS I CAN’T Chaim Jerbi was never given the gift of sight, but he’s fueled by his parents’ vision of empowerment. “They always emphasized that there’s no such thing as ‘I can’t,’ only ‘I don’t want to’” (Photos: Yoav Davidkowitz)

T he 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.

A childhood penchant for music became Chaim’s gateway to mitzvah observance, as his mastery of a host of exotic instruments led him to the study of chazzanus and Torah

“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.”

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