Barbara Sofer

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Speaking Engagements

The Human Spirit: Sight and Insight

January 21, 2010


She examined her face. Her hair had gone gray. The furrows that marked aging had been plowed across her forehead and chin. "Hello, Mom," she said, smiling at the unfamiliar woman in the mirror. Lieba Schwartz hadn't seen herself for 20 years, since before she went blind.

I'm visiting with a friend in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, home of the Lubavitcher Hassidim. Snow dusts the brownstones on this cold American winter. We walk over to visit Lieba Schwartz, an animated, outgoing woman who lives nearby in an uncluttered flat in an apartment building. She welcomes us, shows us new purchases in her growing home library. She's discovered a source of second-hand books and is filling the shelves with the religious texts for which her thirst is unquenchable.

"When you're blind, you forget how to read and write" she says. "You get it back gradually."

Lieba was born as Marcia Schwartz in 1940. Her parents moved around a lot in her childhood. Even as a kid, she sought spirituality. "Who is God? Where is God" she remembers asking her parents. "They said, 'We're Jewish. We don't believe in God,' so I assumed they meant that Jews didn't believe in God, not just that my parents didn't believe."

So when she began a systematic search of a dozen religions as a teen in Miami, Judaism didn't make her list. The most appealing faith was one "with no idols or images" - Christian Science. After college, Schwartz worked for Christian Science and became one of its lecturers, though not "practitioners" - those designated to pray. "The church encompassed my social life and my professional life. Even so, my best friends in the church were named Kaplan, Rosenberg and Shapiro. We always sat together at meetings."

According to Schwartz, her mother and grandmother had gone blind in their 60s. She doesn't know what caused it. When she was only 43, a Boston ophthalmologist confirmed her worst fears: She would soon be blind for the rest of her life. Six months later, the government required that she be examined by three experts before qualifying for disability insurance. They all agreed. "The condition was genetic and inoperable, they all concluded," she said, although she doesn't recall the exact diagnosis.

Schwartz says she was determined to use the remaining sight to its maximum. She learned to pilot a plane, to parachute jump. She swam with dolphins.

OVER SEVEN years, her sight diminished. First she lost colors, then shapes and eventually saw only shadows. She began slipping on city curbs. She paid a blind man $10 an hour to teach her to use his cane. She says she accepted the diagnosis at face value and for all the years she was associated with Christian Science never consulted a doctor about it.

Out of the blue, in 1997, she received a phone call from her mother's cousin Frances Lubliner from New Jersey. "I don't know why I called her," Lubliner, a PhD psychologist told me. "I hadn't spoken to her for at least 20 years. I just had a strong feeling that I should. "Schwartz remembers that the phone conversation was mostly about eye problems. Like her, Lubliner had eye problems, hers from retinopathy due to her diabetes. "She had such a soft, sweet voice and I liked her immediately," said Schwartz. Lubliner ended the phone call with what was to Schwartz a cryptic parting: "Good Shabbos."

Five minutes later, Schwartz called her back. "What was that expression you ended the phone call with?" Lubliner repeated "Good Shabbos." Since she'd become religious four decades earlier, that's how she ended conversations, even when it was Tuesday.

Intrigued, Schwartz phoned Books on Tape and inquired if there was anything that related to the term. They sent Liz Harris's Holy Days: The World of the Hassidic Family, which profiles a Chabad family.

"It sounded like fun," Schwartz thought. The first tape led her to Rabbi Manis Friedman's Tape of the Month Club. Three months later, after more than four decades in the church, she resigned. In 1997, she moved to Crown Heights.

Says Schwartz: "I woke up one day and realized this is who I am." She adds a statement for which she's become well-known. "Judaism is everything. It's emotional, intellectual, metaphysical. Here I was looking for all those things and it was in my own backyard."

Schwartz started using her Hebrew name "Lieba." She was frequently invited to lecture about her return to Judaism. She called her speeches "More than the eye can see, from darkness to light," a discussion of her odyssey; little realizing that she'd leave her actual darkness behind. "At the end of the wilderness, there's a promised land," says Schwartz.

Volunteers in Crown Heights took her shopping, read her mail to her and repaired her plumbing. Others fulfilled her request by recording daily prayers and psalms. Line by line she memorized blessings. Across-the-street neighbors Bronya and the late Gedalia Shaffer provided frequent Shabbat hospitality. Their children assisted Schwartz with utilities and errands, and the quiet youngest child Michal became a special friend.

ONE DAY, Michal asked Schwartz if she thought she'd ever be able to see. "I told her that a friend was insisting that I investigate the newly developed laser surgery. I said I'd do that when I was old enough to get Medicare." Twelve-year-old Michal did the math; 65 was three years of darkness away.

Michal had thought that she would raise money for sick children as her bat mitzva project, but why couldn't she raise money for the eye surgery instead? She collected dollar after dollar from her classmates and friends. Surely all this money would be enough. "She knocked on my door and handed me an envelope," said Schwartz. Inside was $154.

Schwartz didn't have the heart to tell Michal that the money wasn't enough for surgery. Not knowing what to do, in the Chabad manner, she opened a favorite volume of the letters of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson and asked a friend to read it to her: "In the matter of your eyesight," said the letter, "consult a good specialist who will give you proper instruction." So Schwartz made an appointment with Dr. Dennis M. Metz in Brooklyn.

Four technicians assisted in the comprehensive examination, which included a sonogram of the eye. The tests revealed that she had ripe cataracts fully grown, glaucoma, a damaged optic nerve, deterioration from diabetes and irregularly shaped eyes. And then the words she waited for. "I can remove the cataracts and you'll see," Dr. Metz told her.

When time for payment came, she handed the puzzled Dr. Metz the dollar-filled envelope. "I know I'll be paying this off for the rest of it until the redemption comes, but this is a start from the children of Crown Heights." It wasn't necessary, Dr. Metz told her. "She had some insurance, which was all I was going to take," he said. "I would have done it for nothing. Giving back her eyesight was a big mitzva."

No miracles, said the doctor. The surgery was all standard procedure.

In the recovery room Schwartz let out a shout. She could make out her fingers.

Michal was there when the eye patch was removed. "You're so blonde and pretty," she said. Then Schwartz phoned her elderly dad in Florida.

"God put his hand on my head and answered my prayers and gave my only child back her sight," he said. The man who had once told her that Jews didn't believe in God asked her how he could pray.

Schwartz tried to return the money to Michal, but the girls who'd contributed insisted someone with sight now needed money for electricity, lamps and bulbs. They'd raised an additional $3,000 to help her make the adjustment to sight.

COUSIN FRANCES is blind now. Schwartz divides her day between reading books into a recorder for Frances, prayer for the sick and study. Her daily and longtime goal is to be closer to God.

What she learned most from her blindness is never to judge a person by outer appearance.

"When you see a person it's a process to get to their soul, to get beyond a beautiful smile or eyes. We're so easily distracted by the physical. But that's not who we are, not with our makeup and creams or decorated homes."

Lieba Schwartz knows another blind woman who has received her sight back. I tell her about the stem cell progress in Jerusalem on macular degeneration, the most common cause of adult blindness.

"There's a statement in the Talmud that right before the messiah, the blind will get their sight back. Now wouldn't that be something?"



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