Nineteen year old Tehilla was born blind.
Her parents didn’t want their daughter to grow up feeling like a second-class citizen, so despite here disability, they decided that she should go to ‘normal’ school, and be with ‘normal’ kids. It was very challenging logistically, but mostly OK – until the age of 10, when a former friend of Tehilla started turning the class against her, and mocking her blindness.
Cut to the core, Tehilla spent many weeks and months trying to pick herself up off the floor, but the damage done by mockery and malicious gossip can sometimes take a lifetime to heal. But with the encouragement of her family, and a lot of prayer and emuna, the young Tehilla pulled herself together, stopped crying and tried to carry on.
But being a blind girl in a class of seeing classmates was always complicated, challenging and at times profound lonely, even without the added torment of being teased and spoken about.
A couple of years’ ago, Tehilla recalls how she hit a new low: She wanted to become a counsellor for her local Bnei Akiva youth group, and everyone was dead set against it.
The local branch didn’t want her, the local kids didn’t want her, the management didn’t want her – all for different reasons, and all citing that they were acting out of what they believed to be pure motives, i.e., the job would be too difficult for Tehilla, given her disability.
After years’ of fighting for ‘normalcy’, and self-respect, and to be treated as a real, feeling person by her peers, this latest rejection was almost too much to bear. Tehilla retreated into profound sadness and depression for a few weeks, stopped eating, and spent most of her time in her room crying, while her family looked on helpless, unsure how to try to help her.
Then, Tehilla made a decision: she wasn’t going to give up!
Tough as it was to keep standing up again, and to keep trying, that was the path she decided to continue to walk down, with God’s help, and her family’s unwavering support.
She came out of her room, told her parents she still wanted to be a counsellor for Bnei Akiva, and the family started lobbying on her behalf – just as they’d lobbied years’ earlier for her to be able to attend ‘normal’ school, and on many other occasions down the years. Eventually, Bnei Akiva capitulated, and Tehilla became a counsellor.
Initially, her group of young charges were less than impressed that they had a ‘weird’, blind counsellor; but after a few weeks’, they softened up and by the end of the year, they’d come to appreciate Tehilla for who she really was, and how much care, attention and effort she put into them, and the group activities.
Now, you might be wondering how it is I know so many of these details about Tehilla.
The answer is that last year, Tehilla and her two musically-talented older brothers decided to turn Tehilla’s life-story into a kind of musical ‘show’, that they’re now taking all over the country, particularly to girls’ schools.
Tehilla has a hauntingly beautiful voice, and together with her brother Oren, she’s written many songs describing her difficulties and her triumphs. She intersperses these songs with the story of what was happening to her at various points in her life, with the aim of driving a few crucially-important points home to her audience:
- That everyone has a choice about how they react to the pain and suffering they experience in their lives; they can either get embittered, give up and go sour, or they can dig deep, hold on to God, and CHOOSE to turn their suffering into something good and life-affirming.
- That no-one should underestimate the power words have to damage other people – or build them up. The girls who teased Tehilla so cruelly had no idea what daggers they were casting in to heart, or how it literally took her years’ to recover her self-confidence. By the same token, the words of support and love her family continued to pour into her made all the difference to Tehilla being able to come through her experiences stronger, and wanting to make a difference in the world.
- That emuna is what gets us through all these sometimes heartwrenching difficulties that every single one of us has to face.
When Tehilla was performing, for a group of 11-13 year old girls in my daughter’s school, plus their parents, there was barely a dry eye in the house.
I’d gone to the evening obsessing over all my (very minor) difficulties with my book, my sense of purpose, my washing (an ongoing challenge…) and I came out so grateful and inspired.
What amazing Jews there are, in Am Yisrael! What a privilege to share an evening like that with someone like Tehilla. Let me leave you with some of her parting words.
“I want the world to be a place where people don’t just see the externals, like you do, but where they see the inside of a person, and feel who they really are, like I do,” she said. And I realized that for all that she’s completely bling, Tehilla actually sees things much clearer than most of the rest of us.