Rabbi Lenny Sarko had a problem that threatened his career.
After years of working as an environmental scientist developing recycling systems for companies across the country, Rabbi Sarko realized that he was done with all the traveling and decided to pursue a job linked to his only true passion: Judaism. That was 15 years ago and since then he has been embedded with synagogues in Indiana; Tampa, Florida; and Columbus, Ohio before ending up in the Emanu-El Israel Ward in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where he spent the past two years.
However, before moving to the Pittsburgh area, Rabbi Sarko suffered from serious health problems. About five years ago he had bleeding in his eyes as a result of type 2 diabetes, affecting about 80 percent of his left eye but only 10 to 15 percent of his right eye. He can still read most of the time, and his eyesight hasn’t deteriorated any further, but the damage has also been irreparable and there are certain things he just can’t do anymore, like driving a car at night.
“I somehow have one foot in both worlds, both those struggling with vision problems and those of the sighted,” said Rabbi Sarko. “Since I am that and a rabbi, it has put me in a very different position than most people would ever find each other. … Not being able to read was a potential horror story.
“As a rabbi, it was very scary for me not to have access to books,” he continued. “That made me say, ‘Okay, as a Jew you can find solutions.’ The first solution was to learn Braille English. Then ask other questions like, “If there is English braille, is there Hebrew braille?” Yes. … Then I asked the question: ‘Is there such a thing as a Braille Sefer Torah?’ “
A Sefer Torah is a sacred Jewish scroll that contains the five books of Moses and that is usually subject to strict rules regarding their manufacture and legibility. After Rabbi Sarko could not locate any currently existing Braille Sefer Torah, he decided to take matters into his own hands and after almost three years created what is perhaps the first Braille Sefer Torah in the world.
It was quite a Herculean endeavor since standard Torah generally cost about $ 25,000 each and it takes a scribe about a year to complete, Rabbi Sarko said. His special Torah took so long to produce because he spent an additional year developing a flawless process for manually piercing braille holes in a scroll. In general, the writer had to start over after the slightest mistake, which meant he had to effectively eliminate potential sources of error.
Now that he has perfected the process, Rabbi Sarko says, “My plates can be used to make hundreds and thousands of Torahs”. He said he could probably do a Braille Torah on his own in four or five months and a month or two if he had help.
Since Braille is not a language, but a different way of representing language, Rabbi Sarko’s Torah is just Hebrew in Braille, as opposed to a transliteration. Torah should be read and not memorized, which is what a Braille Torah makes possible for blind and visually impaired Jews. A Braille Torah has to be touched while reading, which is technically not allowed according to Jewish teaching. Rabbi Sarko is not worried about this, however.
“In one way, you tell a blind or partially sighted person that they are a full member of the community,” he said, “then you turn around and tell them they cannot do this. For me this is an important part and I started asking questions. … Judaism has always adapted to the context over the course of its millennia. How do we make a mitzvah in this situation? “
The word “mitzvah” is the Hebrew word for “good deed” and this is exactly how Erika Petach would describe what Rabbi Sarko achieved. As the president of Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that helps people in these categories achieve their highest levels of independence, she loves the concept of a Braille Torah and its impact on the local Jewish community.
“I think it’s great,” she said. “Our goal at BVRS is 100 percent inclusivity for everyone we serve. In this way, that person makes reading the Torah 100 percent inclusive. “
BVRS offers a variety of free programs to the blind and visually impaired, including professional assistance, housing services, access technology classes, personal adjustment for blindness training, and rehabilitation for the visually impaired. Petach said it also often helps its more religious members through volunteers helping them get to and from places of worship.
She has been with BVRS for 11 years and said that certain technological advances, such as 3D printing, have “opened up a lot of opportunities to offer things in tactile formats” for the population she oversees. However, it is even more valuable to inform the blind and visually impaired about innovations such as Rabbi Sarko’s Braille Torah.
“The more people hear these stories about what kind of blind people there are or the abilities of people who are blind, the more that begins to break down barriers,” she said.
Rabbi Sarko would like to begin storing Braille Sefer Torah and loaning it to communities and individuals across the country for special occasions. He tries to fund this venture with grants that he has applied for through the Devarim Institute, his nonprofit Jewish education organization.
He estimated that there are more than 300,000 blind or partially sighted Jews in the United States. Rabbi Sarko invites each of them in western Pennsylvania to visit Emanu-El Israel and see for himself his invention.
“Come and read the Torah!” He said. “Do it! This is a wonderful mitzvah. There is nothing more exciting. … It is so meaningful to you. I cannot think of a better gift for people.”