The Gumbel legacy: Out of sight, but not out of mind

For the past decade, Keren Gumbel has helped dozens of blinded soldiers with a range of devices.

A few weeks ago, I attended a most unusual dinner in Tel Aviv. The occasion was a gathering of handicapped soldiers, all of whom had been blinded during their IDF service going back to the War of Independence. I was seated together with my wife Debbie and my lawyer friend, Shmuel Hirsch and his wife Israela, at a table with a gentleman who had not only been blinded, but had also lost both his arms during one of the battles in 1957.
After suffering this terrible injury, this remarkable man went on to complete university, obtain a doctorate, and has been a professor at Tel Aviv University for many years. He and his wife have traveled extensively, and it was fascinating to hear him discuss his travels as a blind individual in various countries, and his ability to appreciate and absorb impressions of the different locations he and his wife visited.
All around us were tables of blind soldiers with their spouses, or other friends or relatives who accompanied them, socializing with each other and swapping stories as to how they have been able to continue their lives after their injuries. As was the case with the man at our table, there were many soldiers who, besides having lost their vision, had suffered other major injuries such as loss of a hand or a leg or severe burns.
The total number of blinded soldiers is approximately 96. As one of the speakers said, “This is one organization that hopes that its numbers will not increase.”
For the past 10 years, Hirsch and I have been administering a fund whose sole purpose is to give assistance to soldiers and other members of the security forces who lost their sight during their service. The history of this fund, called Keren Gumbel (the Gumbel Foundation), began in 1990 when Prof. Erich Gumbel came to my office for an eye exam. At the time he was 75, and he stated that over the past year and a half he had noted a slow, but progressive decrease in his vision which could not be corrected with glasses. My examination showed that I could not offer him any specific mode of therapy.
Gumbel was a well-known psychotherapist in Jerusalem. He had been the first student to graduate the Israel Psychoanalytic Institute.
During the therapy sessions with his patients he would make notes by hand on index cards in his small German script. He explained to me that his biggest problem was his difficulties in reading books or scientific articles, and that he even had problems reading the notes he had written during the years before his eyesight began to fail.
His wife Lydia also suffered from eye problems and had experienced decrease in visual acuity. However, her problems were for the most part correctable and she was able to offer her husband some assistance in his professional work. Gumbel passed away in 1996, after writing his memoirs by dictating them to his wife.
One day in January 1999, I received a call from Lydia. She said that she felt that she was dying and she asked if I would come over to her house as she had an important matter to discuss with me. The Gumbels lived in a modest, basement apartment in Rehavia. I sat with Mrs. Gumbel in the living room/office. The furniture was old but tasteful, and one wall was lined with books and journals on the subject of psychiatry.
Lydia took out a sheet of white paper on which she had written her last will and testament in German. She read it to me and then translated it. In the will she stated that she and her husband had decided that they wanted to leave their entire estate to be used to help Israeli soldiers who had been blinded during their service. The Gumbels had no children and no close relatives in Israel. Lydia also wrote that she wanted to appoint me as the executor of the estate to carry out this plan.
I was overwhelmed by this gesture, and told her that she should begin to help the soldiers while she was still alive, but she said, “No. I want you to do this after I die.”
After I agreed to be a part of this plan she told me the one important condition that had to be followed – “Don’t give this money to any government agency. Make sure you give the money directly to the soldiers or to the company that is supplying the soldiers with their needs.”
This was a very wise decision and one that we have faithfully carried out.
In the summer of 1998, Lydia went to Germany for an open heart operation. It was not successful, and she returned to Jerusalem where she passed away. In her will, which was formalized by Hirsch, she insisted that she should not have a formal funeral nor a proper grave as that would be “a waste of money that could be used to benefit the soldiers.”
She requested, instead, that her body be given to Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School for use in training young medical students. This was carried out and only afterward was she given a public grave.
After establishing a formal charitable fund – Keren Gumbel – Hirsch and I approached the disabled soldiers branch of the Defense Ministry and explained to them what the Gumbels had requested of me and what Keren Gumbel wanted to accomplish. They explained to us that in their budget list of items for the blind soldiers, they had been able to supply many of them with standard computers, but that the special programs for the blind were very expensive and were not included in the items they were allowed to purchase.
For the past 10 years, Keren Gumbel has provided 79 blinded soldiers with various devices, such as special talking computer programs, plus paying for instructors to go to the soldiers’ homes to teach them to use these new programs, special cellphones for the blind, a second computer to use at work, special disc players for listening to music and even a cash register made for a blind restaurant owner. We have also funded the expansion of doorways in one soldier’s home because his wheelchair would not fit through a normal doorway. We especially like to encourage those soldiers who want to work or study and we want to offer any aid that can be of assistance to them.
At the dinner that night in Tel Aviv, soldiers kept coming over to our table to thank us and to tell us how the devices the fund paid for has enriched their lives. Their organization presented Keren Gumbel with a beautiful plaque which expressed their appreciation for the help it has given to so many of them.
Being at this dinner made us realize what incredible foresight the Gumbels possessed.
Their generosity has changed the lives of these soldiers and in some small way improved their abilities to function.
We also realized that all the devices that we have provided will soon need to be replaced because of breakdown or newer technologies. Our problem now is that we are slowly exhausting the fund because we have never said no to any reasonable request. We have had the good fortune to have been placed in a position to do something concrete for these very exceptional defenders of our land and we must continue to keep Keren Gumbel alive.
The writer was former head of the retina service at Shaare Zedek Medical Center. He is now a senior ophthalmologist at the hospital and works in private practice in Jerusalem.