The Human Spirit: Sight and insight

A Brooklyn woman's blindness leads her to leave the Christian Science church after more than four decades and seek out Judaism. The great news is she regains her sight.

charity drive 248.88 courtesy (photo credit: Courtesy)
charity drive 248.88 courtesy
(photo credit: Courtesy)

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

I'mvisiting with a friend in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, home of theLubavitcher Hassidim. Snow dusts the brownstones on this cold Americanwinter. We walk over to visit Lieba Schwartz, an animated, outgoingwoman 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 theshelves 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 movedaround a lot in her childhood. Even as a kid, she sought spirituality."Who is God? Where is God" she remembers asking her parents. "Theysaid, 'We're Jewish. We don't believe in God,' so I assumed they meantthat Jews didn't believe in God, not just that my parents didn'tbelieve."

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

According to Schwartz, her mother and grandmother had goneblind in their 60s. She doesn't know what caused it. When she was only43, a Boston ophthalmologist confirmed her worst fears: She would soonbe blind for the rest of her life. Six months later, the governmentrequired that she be examined by three experts before qualifying fordisability insurance. They all agreed. "The condition was genetic andinoperable, they all concluded," she said, although she doesn't recallthe exact diagnosis.

Schwartzsays she was determined to use the remaining sight to its maximum. Shelearned 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 citycurbs. 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 yearsshe was associated with Christian Science never consulted a doctorabout it.

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

Five minutes later, Schwartz called her back. "What was thatexpression you ended the phone call with?" Lubliner repeated "GoodShabbos." Since she'd become religious four decades earlier, that's howshe 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 herto Rabbi Manis Friedman's Tape of the Month Club. Three months later,after more than four decades in the church, she resigned. In 1997, shemoved to Crown Heights.

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

Schwartz started using her Hebrew name "Lieba." She wasfrequently invited to lecture about her return to Judaism. She calledher speeches "More than the eye can see, from darkness to light," adiscussion of her odyssey; little realizing that she'd leave her actualdarkness behind. "At the end of the wilderness, there's a promisedland," says Schwartz.

Volunteers in Crown Heights took her shopping, read her mail toher and repaired her plumbing. Others fulfilled her request byrecording daily prayers and psalms. Line by line she memorizedblessings. Across-the-street neighbors Bronya and the late GedaliaShaffer provided frequent Shabbat hospitality. Their children assistedSchwartz with utilities and errands, and the quiet youngest childMichal became a special friend.

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

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

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

Four technicians assisted in the comprehensiveexamination, which included a sonogram of the eye. The tests revealedthat she had ripe cataracts fully grown, glaucoma, a damaged opticnerve, deterioration from diabetes and irregularly shaped eyes. Andthen the words she waited for. "I can remove the cataracts and you'llsee," Dr. Metz told her.

Whentime for payment came, she handed the puzzled Dr. Metz thedollar-filled envelope. "I know I'll be paying this off for the rest ofit until the redemption comes, but this is a start from the children ofCrown Heights." It wasn't necessary, Dr. Metz told her. "She had someinsurance, which was all I was going to take," he said. "I would havedone 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 soblonde and pretty," she said. Then Schwartz phoned her elderly dad inFlorida.

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

Schwartztried to return the money to Michal, but the girls who'd contributedinsisted someone with sight now needed money for electricity, lamps andbulbs. They'd raised an additional $3,000 to help her make theadjustment to sight.

COUSIN FRANCES is blind now. Schwartz divides her day betweenreading books into a recorder for Frances, prayer for the sick andstudy. 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, toget beyond a beautiful smile or eyes. We're so easily distracted by thephysical. But that's not who we are, not with our makeup and creams ordecorated homes."

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

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