Sometimes even a relaxing afternoon at the spa can make you see life from a completely different angle.
Meet Alberto Brezca; a 49-year-old professional massage therapist who works at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem.
While there are many wonderful masseurs and masseuses on staff at the Inbal’s five-star deluxe spa and health club, Brezca is the only one without eyesight.
It was quite an incredible experience to spend an hour with Alberto last week and gain a glimpse into the mind of a person who leads a completely fulfilling and tremendously inspirational life.
Brezca was born with the ability to see, and “although from the age of six or seven I always had glasses, that didn’t stop me from playing any and everything with a ball – soccer, basketball. If I could say so myself, I was one of the best athletes in my class.”
He moved to Israel from Argentina in 1981 as a 16-year-old with his parents and two siblings.
“My parents were not so observant, but we always had a strong Jewish identity. We were very traditional and went to synagogue and it was because of Zionism that we left Argentina to make Aliya.”
He finished high school in Jerusalem and went to the IDF as do most Israelis of that age; although Alberto’s bespectacled status did mean he spent his military time as a desk clerk rather than in the field.
After the army, Brezca got a job at SuperPharm as a sales manager and then held a similar position at the Akademon bookstore near Hebrew University.
Throughout this time, while his glasses’ prescription got slightly stronger, Alberto had no significant issues in his day-to-day life in that regard. He was a fully-fledged driver, was a season-ticket holder and avid fan of the Hapoel Jerusalem basketball club, continued to play sports and was living a life similar to most mid-20-year-olds.
In 1994, at the age of 28, Brezca went to Mexico on a trip that he kept on extending – “I really loved my time in Mexico,” he reminisced.
“I fell in love with some of the American culture such as NFL football by watching hundreds of games of the Dallas Cowboys on TV there, which is the team all Mexicans follow.”
Brezca spent three-and-a-half years in Mexico before his eyesight really began deteriorating to the point that he returned to Israel to get a proper understanding of what was happening.
In 1999, just before his 34th birthday, Alberto was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), a genetic degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment and often blindness.
While doctors could not say exactly how long he would remain able to see – whether a matter of months or years – it was clear that Brezca’s life would change dramatically.
Over the next five years, Alberto slowly lost his eyesight completely.
“At first, my long-distance vision started getting worse, then my ability to see peripherally got narrower and narrower to the point that I could only see a tiny spectrum.
If I was looking at someone in the face and they would try and shake my hand, I wouldn’t see their hand at all.”
It took a couple of bad, but thankfully not injurious, car accidents for Alberto to give up driving and slowly but surely, all of the day-to-day activities that were once taken for granted became increasingly impossible.
By the age of 40, in 2004, Alberto was completely blind.
As destiny would have it, Brezca met his wife Ashrat, 17 years his junior – who has vision issues, but can see – at an Etgarim (Israel Association for the Disabled) biking event in 2003 and they were married a few months before Alberto lost his eyesight altogether.
It was certainly a new way of living for Alberto – blindness, not (just) marriage – with all the requisite adjustments.
While the Brezcas were blessed with two daughters (both of whom can see), now eight and five, making a living became quite an ordeal for Alberto with his new condition.
“I worked on Agripas making ‘beigele’ and burekas by hand, but then the store closed and I got jobs when I could washing plates and cutting vegetables.” (Involuntarily, I glanced and ensured he still had all 10 fingers.) “But these were jobs that I got through help from the disability agency and they really paid no more than two or three shekels an hour.”
It was a chance meeting with Dr.
Ran Bibi – who has a PhD in reflexology and massage therapy and is the head of the Inbal Hotel’s spa – that changed Alberto’s life.
Bibi and Brezca have daughters in the same class and at a school event they met and struck up a conversation in which Bibi was immediately impressed by Alberto’s positive attitude and wondered aloud what he did for a living.
“I immediately wanted to help him in some way and the wheels started turning in my mind,” said Bibi last week.
Anyone who has spent time on the streets of Beijing is likely familiar with the notion of a blind-massage parlor.
Although blind massage has a long history in China (the first blind masseur is said to be the 8th-century Buddhist monk Jianzhen, who practiced the treatment after losing his sight during old age), it was only in the late 1990s that such clinics began to proliferate.
Beijing Massage Hospital began to offer massage courses for blind people in 1958, but it was not until 1996, when the Chinese Massage Association of Blind Practitioners was established, that professional training became widely offered.
From 2006, a government initiative under the auspices of the China Disabled Persons’ Federation saw the number of clinics and training facilities soar, and today there are estimated to be more than 100,000 blind massage therapists across the country known for its massage and reflexology treatments and philosophies.
While not at all as common in Israel, Bibi was well aware of these advances through his vast studies and approached Alberto with the idea of teaching him how to become a massage therapist.
“Ran really took me under his wing,” explained Alberto. “He taught me everything and he helped me set up a home treatment center and buy whatever I need, while also giving me a job in the spa at the hotel.”
With the dedicated help of Rachel Koenigson, a personal training and acupuncturist who runs a boutique body and soul treatment company called Vitality, Bibi undertook the process of teaching Alberto both the practical techniques and scientific philosophies of massage therapy.
“Alberto has a great memory and that has helped in his studies. Many students are lost without their notebooks or laptops, but Alberto just soaks it all in,” noted Bibi.
Alberto made quick progress and before long, he had set up a basic treatment center in his home as well as begun to get a feel for his new passion.
“It is well known that a blind person will have heightened senses than a regular ‘seeing’ person to compensate for the sense of sight that they do not have. When it comes to massage, this can be an extreme benefit, as Alberto can immediately sense upon touch any points of tension in someone’s body.”
While Alberto’s training is still a work in progress as he strives to master the various disciplines of therapy – from Swedish to neonatal to hot stone – he has already begun to accumulate a respectable list of clientele.
“Alberto has a great sensitivity with finding and alleviating problems in my muscles. I really enjoy being treated by him,” notes David Goldman, who also helped Alberto purchase a high-end massage table for his home center.
Indeed, this writer can attest that, other than needing to personally dim the lights to the desired level at the start, a massage from Alberto is a magically relaxing experience and without prior knowledge, one would have no clue that he has no eyesight.
Alberto continues to find ways to enjoy the things he loves in life despite his condition.
“I still go to watch Hapoel Jerusalem basketball games at the new Jerusalem Arena. I love the vibe of the game and can feel the flow of the on-court action despite not being able to see it,” exclaims Alberto. “I can even tell when a shot goes up whether it was a two-pointer or three-pointer. When the teams are going back and forth, the fans are constantly cheering, but when someone puts up a shot, there is a couple of moments of anticipatory silence.
“By counting the seconds of silence, I instinctively know how long the ball was in the air and from where on the court it was shot.”
It is this positive attitude that truly personifies Alberto’s demeanor.
“He is a true pleasure to have around,” said Bibi. “As the manager of the Inbal’s spa, it is really a double advantage for me to be able to him Alberto out, but also to provide our clients with a therapist who can really make them feel good.”
Alex Herman, the Vice President of Sales and Marketing for the Inbal Jerusalem, had high praise for Alberto and his integration into the hotel’s staff.
“We look at our employees as partners in our goal of ensuring our guests have as pleasant a trip as possible.
Having a person like Alberto, with his background and experience, is something we feel proud about, but he has also demonstrated himself to be a more than effective and committed worker.”
Currently, Alberto works 3-4 days a week at the Inbal and also takes private clients at his home. He is hoping to expand his practice into sports therapy and his dream would be to work with Hapoel Jerusalem and other local basketball teams and other sports organizations in Israel.
“I have always loved sports and really think that, even though I can’t play for the teams, I can still contribute to their success in other ways,” said Alberto. “I am not the type of person who could sit at home and ever feel sorry for myself about my life. I try to focus on giving other a good feeling, and by doing that I feel good as well.”
Generally, one walks out of a massage feeling like a new person. After spending time with Alberto, one leaves feeling like a new person, also armed with a valuable new perspective on life.