Barbara Sofer

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The Human Spirit: Rose Colored Lenses

January 27, 2012


Contact lenses with red centers to cover the pupil and filter incoming light help Sophia Sevaks cope with a hereditary vision disorder.

For Sophia Sevaks, light hurts. When we meet on a Jerusalem winter day she’s wearing large dark glasses, black jeans and a tailored jacket. To avoid traffic, she’s hanging on to the arms of Ruthie Ezra, her house mother at the Meir Shfeya Youth Village near Zichron Ya’acov.

Sevaks arrived at the beginning of the school year from Vladivostok, a Russian seaport city around the size of Jerusalem. She’s among 70 teens at Meir Shfeya from the former Soviet Union who are taking part in the Jewish Agency’s Na’ale program for Diaspora high-school students.

In the United States, “boarding schools” can usually be divided into prep schools or correctional programs. Not so in Israel, where youth villages provide a supportive environment for newcomers, teens on their own and teens from troubled families, despite the expense of residential education.

There are some 60 youth villages in the country. Meir Shfeya, one of the first and named for Amschel Meyer Rothschild, served as a refuge for children from the Kishinev pogrom in 1903. In 1917 the famed Herzliya Hebrew High School was temporarily moved to the village because the Jews were expelled from Tel Aviv during World War I.

Over the last century, teens from every immigrant group have come to this red-roofed agricultural village, which has a dairy, an experimental farm and a music school. There’s even a winery there to teach viticulture in the Rothschild tradition, and an Ethiopian village with authentic tukuls to strengthen the ethnic roots of Ethiopian students. The school has a wonderful mix of students since parents from middle-class Zichron Ya’acov and Binyamina went to court and won the right for their teens to attend the village’s prize-winning high school.

Staff members noticed Sevaks’s nearsightedness when she arrived. She needed to sit in the front row and held her schoolbooks close to her face. Still, she could read and write and had friends. She sang in the school talent contest. Then one day, sitting around a table schmoozing with classmates, Sevaks was asked to pass a pitcher of juice.

Instead, she grabbed the tablecloth. Everything came crashing down. “I realized she couldn’t see the tablecloth,” said housemother Ezra. “She was devastated and inconsolable. To us it was no big deal. At first, I couldn’t understand the extent of her distress. Only later did I realize how important her facade of leading a normal life is.”

A local ophthalmologist found that Sevaks’s retinas were atrophied and recommended she apply for assistance from the Michaelson Institute for Rehabilitation of Vision, named for the renowned Scottish-educated ophthalmologist who moved to Israel in 1948 after serving in the British army in Egypt in World War II.

Hence we meet in a clinic off Hanevi’im Street.

Even inside the building, Sevaks squints when she takes off her glasses. She can’t make eye contact. Her eyes drift inward and outward, a condition called nystagmus.

Sevaks doesn’t speak much Hebrew. Fortunately, one of the young optometrists on duty is Lithuanian-born Yehudita Gurelik, who moved to Israel as a child. A battery of tests reveals that Sevaks is color-blind and nearsighted enough to be considered legally blind in the US. The optometrists offer a variety of corrective tools: electronic reading devices, magnifiers, telescopic reading eye-wear and a hand-held telescope that looks like a camera. Some of the eye-wear looks as if though came from outer space; other choices are less conspicuous and more appealing to a pretty teenager.

Next, Dr. Tatiana Floresco-Sebok examines Sevaks. Despite her first name, Sebok doesn’t speak Russian. She finds that Sevaks, 16, is suffering from achromatopsia, a rare, hereditary vision disorder that is responsible for the color blindness, the nystagmus, the shortsightedness and the light sensitivity. She’ll need many more sophisticated tests. She’ll be a candidate for promising stem-cell therapy, an area in which Israel is a leader. Genetic testing, another area Israel is advanced in, will help her prevent passing on the disorder.

But in the meantime, there’s an Israeli idea that may help her: contact lenses with red centers to cover the pupil and filter incoming light. Israel’s (and possibly the world’s) expert is Boris Severinsky. Born in Kharkov, Ukraine, Severinsky made aliya with his parents 16 years ago. After serving in the medical corps of the IDF he noticed a billboard advertising the optometry program at Hadassah College. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and, in addition to fitting and selling glasses and contact lenses, he began cooperating on research projects with SoFlex, a lens manufacturer in the Galilee. He’s not sure the Jerusalem team is the first to have come up with the idea of a red-centered soft contact lens (“In the US others seem to have thought of the same idea around the same time”), but they’re certainly among the first. The special lenses have a small red circle in the center that covers the pupil and reduces the amount of light that enters the eye. In addition, they can be customized to help compensate for nearsightedness.

Severinsky and Sebok will be presenting this breakthrough at an international medical conference in the spring. They have 11 successful cases so far. Sevaks will make it a dozen.

Local and overseas donors immediately stepped forward to pick up the cost of the lenses and the examinations that aren’t covered by Sevaks’s medical insurance.

Severinsky, who speaks Hebrew, English and Russian, explains the process to Sevaks and slips a trial pair of red-center lenses on her eyes. Then he sends her outdoors to try them in the late afternoon sunshine. On a downtown pedestrian street near the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, a crowd of college students has gathered. They’re cheering on a group of architecture students who are competing to transform packages of plain copy paper into towers. Sevaks mixes among them, eyes open wide, smiling. A few paper towers tilt and fall. Wearing her rose-colored lenses, Sevaks tilts her face to the sun and applauds the skyscrapers that rise high against the blue-gray sky.

She’ll never have to squint or hide behind dark glasses again.

I know we have staggering problems in this country, but we also have so much good-heartedness, talent and creativity. Accuse me of wearing rose-colored lenses. I’m grateful for the opportunity.



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