By Ron Wolfson
Despite raising three boys and working in her businesses, my Mom, Bernice Paperny Wolfson, was an active volunteer in the community. For twenty-five years, she sang in the all-volunteer choir at Beth El Synagogue every Friday night. She was involved in our public school Parent-Teacher Associations. But, it was her work with the blind children of Nebraska that became her lifelong passion.
It all began when her friend Pauline Guss returned to Omaha from the 1958 national convention of synagogue women – the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism.
“Bernice, I just saw the most amazing thing,” Pauline said. “A sisterhood in Maryland was honored for helping a young Jewish blind boy, Sparky Mandel, become a Bar Mitzvah. They created a Braille prayer book for him. Do you think we could do something like that at Beth El?”
I don’t know why, but the idea captured the imagination…and the heart…of my mother. She was all of thirty years old, but in short order, Mom had recruited a group of girlfriends with a simple question: “Would you like to learn how to transcribe Braille?” She went to her Rabbi. Myer S. Kripke, at the synagogue to ask if there was a room they could transform into an office. He offered a small closet in the basement; it became the “Braille Room.” Somehow, money was raised to buy Braille typewriters and a kind of mimeograph machine that heated special paper to raise the bumps that became letters for the blind. The Braille Room became the home of the “Braille Group” – what we today would call a small affinity group…with an amazing purpose.
Mom and her friends learned there was no English-Hebrew Passover Haggadah available in Braille, and so, they set to work creating the first one of its kind. The women taught themselves how to type Braille and then how to duplicate the pages. To this day, I remember the smell of the machines and the glue used to put the books together. The project was an enormous success, with copies of the Braille Haggadah sent all over North America. This alone would have been an amazing achievement of the small group.
One thing quickly led to another. Mom learned that there were eight blind kids (not Jewish) in Omaha who needed a preschool, but no institution would host them. She knew that the synagogue preschool met on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, so she asked Rabbi Kripke if she could use the preschool facility for the blind kids on Tuesday and Thursday. She recruited another friend, Ruth Sokoloff, to be the teacher. She then thought the blind kids would benefit from a summer camp experience, so she arranged a week-long encampment at the local Salvation Army camp. She took Gene Eppley, the richest man in Omaha at the time (Eppley Air Field is named for him), out to see the camp where one of the talented blind kids entertained, hoping to ask him to support the effort. The next day, Eppley called to offer $10,000, but it had to be given to a 501c3 nonprofit corporation. Overnight, Mom established the Nebraska Foundation for Visually Impaired Children to gather funding and support. She thought the kids should have an annual Christmas party; so she recruited Ruth Sokoloff’s husband Phil to sponsor the event. The blind children got $25 each and a sighted helper to go shopping for Christmas presents for their parents and siblings. Just before one Christmas party, the guy scheduled to play Santa Claus called in sick. Mom didn’t miss a beat; she tracked down a Santa costume and had me play the part! One of the proudest days of my life was when this busy mom, with three little kids of her own, was honored as the Omaha “Volunteer of the Year” in 1961. I even got to leave school early to attend the luncheon! To this day, the Foundation continues its important work in improving the lives of the blind children and adults in Nebraska.
Mom brought her volunteer work deeply into our family life. She befriended leaders of the blind community, like Stan and Barrett Yank. Stan was a blind man who played trumpet and Barrett taught school. Mom managed to get Stan a gig playing the call to the post during the thoroughbred horseracing season at Ak-sar-ben (Nebraska, spelled backwards…funny Nebraskans) race track. Mom enlisted me and my brothers to be camp counselors at the summer camp for the blind kids; we learned how to interact with the disabled, up close and personal. We always helped out at the annual Christmas party; one year, when the guy hired to play Santa Claus called in sick, Mom somehow found a Santa costume and I played the part. When the famous jazz pianist, George Shearing, came through Omaha in the spring one year, Mom invited him for Passover Seder at our home. Of course, Mom was elated that George used the Braille Haggadah she and her group had created. The next night, Shearing returned the favor by hosting our family as guests at his performance. He sat down at the piano, thanked the crowd for a warm reception, and offered a special welcome to the Wolfson family, “where I enjoyed a wonderful evening last night at their Passover Seder,” and then proceeded to play a jazz riff of the famous melody to one of the prayers, “Dayenu.” Thirty years later, I attended one of Shearing’s concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and managed to get a pass backstage. When I was introduced to him, Shearing shook my hand and asked: “Ronnie, how are your parents, Bernice and Alan?” I was floored. He continued: “You know, I recently discovered that my great-grandmother in England was Jewish. That makes me Jewish, too, doesn’t it Ron?” “Why, yes it does George,” I responded as he smiled broadly. “Welcome to the tribe!”
The Braille Group operated for a dozen years at Beth El Synagogue, producing resources for the Jewish blind, demonstrating the power of Mom’s “tap on the shoulder” that created one of the great “small groups” in the history of the congregation.