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Blind Man, a Convert to Judaism, Is Tethered to Life and Where It Takes Him

August 9, 2021

As humanity watches and waits to see how reliable COVID vaccines are in a variant-rich atmosphere and how many holdouts will give in and roll up their sleeves, the educational community is bracing itself for a return to the classroom.

From a Jewish perspective, for a second consecutive year, John Riehl admits he doesn’t have a crystal ball when it comes to how the High Holidays will play out. This year, Rosh Hashanah, which marks ‘the creation of the world,’ is on September 6 through 8, while Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, will be observed on September 15 and 16.

“’We struggled with that,” – last year – reports Riehl, 68, who has held a flurry of titles at Oseh Shalom, a Reconstructionist congregation in Laurel, Md. “One of the hardest things with prayer services, especially with the High Holy Days, is having people physically together in the sanctuary. It creates energy. That wasn’t possible last year,” he adds.

As is the case with houses of worship spanning religious traditions, the synagogue last year opted to shorten the length of the services, Riehl said, reasoning that “nobody wants to sit in front of a computer for three or four hours. That’s a death knell.”

Whatever daunting question marks life presents, Riehl is skilled at problem-solving. His rugged mental toughness informs him to meet trials head on.

Riehl was born nearly two months premature in an army hospital in Fort Campbell, KY. In those days, he said, preemies were “routinely” placed in incubators where they were given a chance to grow and strengthen. In his situation, he got too much pure oxygen, causing the optic nerve to ‘burn out,’ resulting in permanent blindness.

Riehl said his formative years were spent in Frankfurt, Germany, where his father was stationed at the time. Even at the age of four and five, Riehl remembers listening to a program on Armed Forces Radio called The Eternal Light. The broadcast was peppered with Bible stories about the Exodus and epic figures like King David. It also traced events from the Holocaust, he said. That aural odyssey, traveling through the ether and crackling through the speakers, laid the groundwork for what was to unfold years later during his spiritual journey.

Meanwhile, as he grew, he embraced the doctrines of Presbyterianism, starting with his baptism as a baby. “In seventh and eighth grade, when you become a teenager, you start questioning stuff,” he notes. “The notion of Jesus dying on the cross to save people from their sins – I couldn’t believe that.”

When he was six, the family settled in San Jose, CA. It was an era, he says, where only a handful of public schools permitted blind students to be mainstreamed into general education classrooms. “I attended classes with everybody else. We would Braille our work on a Braille writer” and submit it to the teachers that way.

During high school, Riehl began attending shabbat services at a conservative synagogue in the Golden State. What he encountered in the old prayer book, the Silverman Machzor, was immersive. “Some of the liturgical prayers had imagery of warriors and bards and kings. The language was very poetic,” conjuring images of Lord of the Rings.  

When he made the decision to convert to Judaism, “my parents were very supportive. Tapping the services of the Jewish Braille Institute, a non-profit that offers an array of services to the blind, Riehl had an adult bar mitzvah at Oseh Shalom. “My dad came east and stood on the bima with me.”

Serving as the former president of the board, in his role overseeing religious instruction, even helping set up daily reflections via Zoom, Riehl emphasizes his disability has never impeded his light from shining. “From the beginning, nobody made a big deal out of the fact that I couldn’t see,” he recalls. “They accepted me as a member, they accepted me as a volunteer. I’m a person who is, not a blind person.”

“John is an absolute inspiration, someone who takes command of so many things in Jewish ritual,” enthuses Charles Bernhardt, the former cantor at Oseh Shalom. “It wouldn’t be a stretch to say Oseh Shalom wouldn’t be the congregation it is now without John Riehl.”

Bernhardt says he often watches in awe as Riehl reads prayers in braille, clutching the enormous book in one hand while reading with the other. When he enjoys teasing Riehl about his skillfulness, Riehl is armed with a good-natured comeback: “He says `I don’t know how you can drive a car at 65 miles an hour!’”  

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