Ethel Rosenfeld, 96, of Maplewood sits on a chair cushioned with three pillows inside a soundproof booth. She opens the newspaper in front of her, leans in toward the microphone, and begins to read out loud selected articles from the latest issue of New Jersey Jewish News.
She is one of over 150 people who volunteer at EIES of New Jersey, which provides audio newscasting for people who are blind or visually impaired. EIES (Electronic Information and Education Service), located in South Orange in the old town library, is the last studio of its kind in New Jersey.
The organization, about to hold celebrations marking its 35th anniversary, operates on a shoestring budget with a handful of paid employees and those 150-plus volunteers. At least a third of the volunteers are Jewish, and many of them come from West Orange. The organization’s list of supporters is also dotted with Jewish foundations, including the Jewish Community Foundation, the Eric Ross Foundation, and the Wallerstein Foundation for Geriatric Life Improvement.
The audience is difficult to measure — they listen via streaming webcast on the Internet, through a cable hookup, or through antiquated handmade radio receivers. Volunteer coordinator Sherri DeRose suspects they are mostly elderly, at least those who use the radios; about 1,000 radios have been given out, but DeRose suspects only 100 or so are still in use. “There is no way we can know how many radios are in use at any given time,” said DeRose. “We did a phone survey several years ago and found many people had passed away but the families did not return the radios.” EIES plans to conduct another survey later this fall, not only to find out how many radios are being used but also to learn more about users’ programming needs.
“The signal, with a 30-mile radius, goes up to Paramus and down to Matawan; if mountains get in the way, the transmission gets screwed up,” said DeRose.
The service began in 1974 and continues to broadcast through WSOU, the radio station of Seton Hall University.
The webcasts, which began two or three years ago, may have made for a dramatic increase in the number of listeners — or not: The organization does not keep tabs. “Our system is not set up to know when it is being accessed,” said DeRose. “There are probably new technical advances that would allow us to obtain more information, but we do the best we can with the people and resources we have.”
Volunteers, however, are plentiful, and like Rosenfeld — who has been reading for EIES for at least 18 years — they stay for the long term. A member of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, she got her start through a friend who was reading for EIES.
“At that time,” she said, her friend “was reading the Times, and they suggested I read the Jewish News — which I have been doing ever since.” Why does she come every Friday, without fail? “I enjoy reading aloud,” she said.
All the volunteers have different reasons. One recent morning, Rob Greenfield of Montville, a member of Pine Brook Jewish Center, was busy cutting articles from The New York Times in preparation for his upcoming two-hour reading slot. (Times readers cut out articles to avoid unnecessary rustling of paper on air.) About six years ago he saw an item about Rosenfeld in NJJN when she was honored with the EIES’ first Volunteer of the Year Award. He came in, auditioned, and was hooked. “I’m a voice-over wannabe,” he acknowledged.
Phyllis Tolkowsky, among the West Orange contingent, is a member of B’nai Shalom there. She’s been reading for about five years; she found out about the organization, she said, when National Council of Jewish Women offered a variety of volunteer opportunities. She read articles from The New York Times for a few years, then took a break to take care of her ailing husband. When she returned, she settled into the Wall Street Journal.
“It’s fun,” she said. “You meet people, and you feel good when you do something like that.”
The biggest challenge for DeRose? Filling slots that fall on a major Jewish holiday is at least one headache. On a recent mid-September weekday, she was trying to find readers to fill in for volunteers who would not be coming in on Yom Kippur, which fell on a Monday.
“I know this may be a stupid question, but are you Jewish?” she asked one volunteer who happened to call in. “I don’t want to impose, but are you doing anything on Yom Kippur? Okay, my question to you is can you come in on Monday?” She got lucky. “Oh thank you, David,” she said into the receiver after filling the two-hour slot for The New York Times reading.
She herself got started as a volunteer reading USA Today for 15 years before taking on the paid position of volunteer coordinator, which takes up about 10 hours each week.
EIES of New Jersey will hold its 35th anniversary gala on Tuesday, Oct. 20, at the Crystal Plaza in Livingston. The event will honor Dr. Fred Jacobs, former New Jersey state health commissioner, and the Maplewood Lions Club. It will feature Tony Award-winning actress Judy Kaye. For more information, contact Sherri DeRose at EIESNJ@aol.com.