Long after guide dogs for the blind had become commonplace, vision-impaired Israelis could only get a dog by coming for a month of training in the United States or England — and only if they spoke fluent English.
That all changed in 1991, when a young Israeli with a dream and a Bucks County man with connections and compassion started what is today the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind.
The center just graduated its 326th human-dog pairing, another milestone for the founder and president of the center, Norman Leventhal of Warrington.
“It’s given a whole new meaning to my life,” said Leventhal, 80. “I had never met anyone in my life who was visually impaired or blind. Now I know hundreds. I get a very good feeling when I walk into our guide dog center.”
The project began with Noach Braun, who trained military dogs as a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces in the 1980s. Braun left the military with a clear picture of what he wanted to do in life — train guide dogs to help IDF members who lost their sight in service.
“Shocked” to learn no such school existed in Israel, Braun came to the United States hoping to train at one of the 10 such American schools.
He was rejected because of the costs involved in training someone who would take his skills overseas. A year later, Braun went to the Israeli consulate in New York. There it was suggested he contact Leventhal, who was active in Jewish causes, particularly the Soviet Jewry movement.
Braun came to the Leventhal home on the first night of Hanukka in 1986.
“Hanukka is the festival of lights and here we were talking about bringing people out of the darkness,” recalled Michael Leventhal of Doylestown, who succeeded his father as the center’s executive director last year. “We met Noach and absolutely fell in love with him. You look in the dictionary under mensch and you’ll see a picture of Noach. He loves animals and all he has ever wanted to do was help people. He has no profit motive.”
Norman Leventhal eventually convinced the Ohio Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Columbus, Ohio, to accept Braun. He began to raise funds to offset training costs and for living expenses for Braun and his wife during the two years they spent in the U.S. Braun went for another two years training in England.
Norman’s fund-raising allowed the couple to purchase property in K’far Yedidya, where blind Israelis would come for three weeks of training with a dog followed by a week’s training with an instructor in the blind person’s home.
The center later moved to a 1.5-acre lot in Beit Oved, near Tel Aviv, with help from the Israeli government. Its big break came when a wealthy English benefactor, Lady Elizabeth Kaye, built the current facility, including six dorm rooms, a kitchen and lounge area, administrative offices, kennels, and a training facility.
It has eight breed dogs who live with families and provide most of its puppies. The puppies are raised by foster families throughout Israel. They return to the facility after a year for “a special graduation ceremony” and evaluation. Braun’s wife, Orna, oversees the successful breeding and training operations.
Michael Leventhal left a career in commercial real estate to take over after his father became sick. “We as a family realized this was too important not to continue.”
The center’s annual budget is approximately $1.5 million, with each dog-human partnership costing $25,000.To lower costs, the foundation that supports the center operates out of Norman’s basement.
“But we refuse to borrow money so every year we have to start over fund-raising,” said Michael. “We rely on the generosity of American Jews.”