The chairman of an organization of blind Jews contends that the major publisher of Jewish religious material for the blind and visually impaired has de-emphasized the publication of Braille prayer books.
Harold Snider said the publisher has neglected the religious material in favor of large print books for recreational reading already available through the Library of Congress.
Snider heads the National Federation of the Blind in Judaism, which he says has 50 members.
Ellen Isler, executive vice president of the publishing house, JBI International, categorically refuted each charge, insisting that her organization has not cut back on the number of Braille books produced each year. She said the 40 books produced so far this year (including fiction, non-fiction and special requests) is the
same number as in the past few years. And thus far this year, Isler said, 614 Braille books and special requests have been distributed.
Snider alleged also that JBI International, which was formerly known as Jewish Braille Institute, has not updated the Braille prayer books it has published. For instance, he said, Sim Shalom, the Conservative prayer book for the Sabbath and festivals JBI printed in Braille in 1985, has not been amended even though the book has gone through two updates.
But Isler said that only 2 percent or 579 of JBIís subscribers request Braille books, and that prayer books are updated. JBI most recently produced the 1999 edition of Sim Shalom and is in the process of producing the Artscroll Siddur. Several volumes have already been produced that include most of the daily prayers. Isler said there are other Orthodox, Reform and Conservative prayer books. Last week she received a request for a Reconstructionist Siddur, and she said work would begin on it shortly.
Isler said the production of a Braille siddur is "technologically complicated, time-consuming and very expensive." Because it must contain Hebrew and English Braille, it must be compiled by someone with a mastery of Hebrew and English Braille, as well as a thorough knowledge of the Hebrew text itself. In addition, the editor must make sure that the Hebrew and English that appear on facing pages correspond and that the pagination corresponds to the printed version.
"The volumes have to be carefully compiled so that an individual does not have to carry more than two or three volumes at a time," she said. "For example, the one-volume Siddur Sim Shalom translates into nine Braille volumes."
Snider claimed that proof of JBI’s decision to de-emphasize Braille books came last year when it gave its library of 70,000 Braille books to the Library of Congress without consulting the constituents who use those books. He estimated that about 60 percent of those who are legally blind are unable to read large print books, and that 80 percent of those who are employed use Braille in their work.
"Before they gave away [the collection], you could ask for a book and get it in a week or 10 days," he said. "Now it takes at least two months."
Isler said the actual number of Braille books transferred to the Library of Congress was 6,000 titles, although it takes as many as nine Braille books to contain one volume.
"Requests for books from this collection were very infrequent," she said.
The Library of Congress agreed to store the books at no cost, Isler said, and there were only two duplicate titles in both collections. All of the books are of Jewish interest and ranged from those on the Holocaust to Jewish cookbooks. Isler pointed out that JBI has kept in its own collection another 2,500 Jewish liturgical and prayer books produced in Braille.
By giving the books to the Library of Congress, she said, JBI saved $35,000 in storage fees each year and is using that money to upgrade JBIís Braille technology and to pay the salary of the library staff person who produces only Braille. JBI operates on a budget of $3 million, all of it privately donated, and serves 30,000 persons worldwide.
"We have not in any way, shape or form diminished what we are doing for the Braille users of our library," Isler stressed. "What we have done is to add [to the material] we are providing to the elderly visually impaired because there are 200,000 to 250,000 older Jews who are visually impaired. As people live longer, [many of them] get age-related vision diseases, so we have expanded our outreach to those people. And we have just been asked by the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel to expand service to their visually impaired English speakers."
She added that many Braille and large print users also request books on audiotape, which JBI also produces.