How it all began:
When Noach Braun was a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) his duties included training dogs for military purposes. When he left the military, it was his dream to continue to work with animals – but only for the greater good. He was shocked to discover that Israel did not have a guide dog program. In fact, the procedure at the time involved a visually impaired Israeli having to go to Jerusalem to pass an English test. If they understood English well enough, they were sent to the U.S. for a month of instruction with a guide dog. Not only was this hard on the families, but the dogs were not trained to handle the unique environment, obstacles and challenges found in Israel, such as traffic circles, cars parked on the sidewalks, security barriers, inconsiderate drivers, and other issues that simply do not exist in other countries. Plus, the dogs were trained in English, not Hebrew.
At age 26, Noach decided to make it his life’s mission to create a guide dog school in Israel, so all visually impaired Israelis would have an opportunity to obtain the mobility and independence that only a guide dog can provide. He came to America on his own to find a guide dog school that would teach him the necessary skills. Noach speaks now about how naive he was: “When I arrived in New York, I thought there would be a huge sign that said ‘Welcome Noach,’ and someone would show me the way.”
Instead, he found life to be very difficult. His command of English was not great, and at the time, he didn’t find many people willing to help him. Noach walked dogs and worked for a moving company to make ends meet. He also volunteered at the Jewish Guild for the Blind in New York City. “I think I’m the only Israeli to ever volunteer there,” said Noach.
Noach then began calling on the ten major guide dog training facilities in America. He was devastated, when each and every school rejected his request to be an apprentice. After a year of trying, Noach almost gave up on his dream.
Disheartened, he turned to the Israeli Consulate in New York, to see if someone there could help him. Noach found Yeshaya Barzel, the Consul in charge of the Soviet Jewry desk. He asked Yeshaya, “Is there any way that you could call the schools and maybe soften their hearts? After all, I just want to learn this skill so I can help our people back home.” Yeshaya said, “I’m sorry Noach, this is outside of our area, but I know a man in Pennsylvania who is very well connected and likes Jewish causes. Let’s give him a call.” This is where the connection was made with Norman Leventhal of Warrington, Pennsylvania.
As a little background, Norman had no experience with visually impaired people. He didn’t know anyone who was blind, and he had never seen a guide dog working. What he did have was a strong commitment to the Jewish community and assisting people in need. Norman had served as President of his Synagogue, co-founded the Bux-Mont UJA (later to become a part of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia), worked tirelessly to free Soviet Jews from religious oppression, and had been a member of many other local service organizations. In addition, he was a successful businessman who owned and operated a hotel, restaurant and banquet facility that employed over 100 people.
Yeshaya reached out to Norman and asked him to meet Noach. Norman replied, “I have a lot of things on my plate, the last thing I need is another project.” Yeshaya said, “All I am asking is that you meet this young man. Maybe you can point him in the right direction.” Norman finally agreed and invited Noach to join the family for dinner on the first night of Chanukah in 1986. Norman was so impressed with Noach, and the dream of this young, idealistic 26-year-old to help others, that he decided to get involved. He later said, “I never met a man who was more focused on helping others. His spirit was infectious and he is the true definition of a mensch. I had to try to help him.”
Norman began calling the same guide dog schools and he got the same negative response – except that he thrives on a challenge, and he was going to find some way to change the “no” to a “yes.” He finally received a call from the Director of Pilot Dogs in Columbus, Ohio who agreed to accept Noach into their guide dog mobility instructor training program.
After two years of instruction at Pilot Dogs, Norman arranged for Noach to enter the training program at the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association in England, where he completed the course to become a Guide Dog Mobility Instructor at the end of 1990. While Noach was learning to be an instructor, his wife Orna learned how to establish the dog breeding program. Orna has been a full partner in the process and is our Director of Animal Services. During this time, Norman started a non-profit organization to raise funds in the U.S. so they could fund and build the school in Israel.
Norman joined Noach in Israel on January 1, 1991 and they started to look for a place to begin training guide dogs. They were interrupted when Saddam Hussein started lobbing scud missiles into Israel from Iraq and Noach was called into his IDF unit. Upon returning to civilian life a couple of weeks later, they found a small house in Kfar Yedidya, a moshav near Netanya, where Noach started training Tillie, a Yellow Lab provided by the school in England.
When Noach had completed the training with Tillie, he invited Haim Tsur to be his first graduate. Tsur, a concert violinist from Jerusalem who he met at Pilot Dogs had asked to be his first trainee. Tsur, a veteran guide dog owner on his 5th guide dog, lived with Noach’s family while receiving his instruction. He graduated with Tillie in June of 1991. Eventually, they outgrew the small house on the moshav and moved in 1994 to Beit Oved, just south of Tel Aviv between Rishon Lezion and Yavne. This property had few neighbors, was surrounded by orange groves and was adjacent to the Ayanot Agricultural School. The first construction was state-of-the-art kennels for the puppies. Next came the purchase of 4 caravans (mobile homes) where the students lived during training. A few years later, as a result of a major gift from Lady Elizabeth Kaye (photo) of London, the Lady Kaye Student Center was conceived, designed, built and completed in 2004 with six student bedrooms, a dining room, kitchen, student lounge, meeting rooms and offices for the staff.
Today, Noach, along with his wife Orna, and 28 staff members, is proud to report that they have graduated nearly 500 “Partnerships” of blind Israelis and guide dogs. While a great deal has been accomplished, much more is needed to reduce the length of time spent on our waiting list. Norman continues to serve as President of the organization. Anthony Krais, formerly head of the Jewish Blind Society in London, heads the British Friends of the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind, Sara Gabriel is the Director of the Canadian Friends of the IGDCB, and guide dog owner Haim Schwartz is currently the Chairman of the Israel Board of Directors. Norman’s son Michael Leventhal became the Executive Director in the US to help carry on this wonderful legacy.
There are two lessons here. First, it is amazing what a small group of dedicated people can achieve. Every day, our staff makes a positive change in the lives of the visually impaired in Israel. Visitors tell us it is one of the highlights of their trip to Israel. Please come and see for yourself.
The second lesson is equally important. A 26-year-old man decided to make the world a better place. He had a dream, and relentlessly pursued it until it became a reality. It is important to teach our children the importance of Tikun Olam – Healing the World. We are all capable of helping others and we should all support worthy organizations – like the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind.
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