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Oriel: a neighborhood for people with visual impairments in Israel: 1950-67.

The 1950s was a decade of mass immigration to the fledgling, resource-poor State of Israel, including hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab countries (Lisak, 1999). Almost all the Jews in such countries as Iraq and Yemen were forced to leave their countries because of political developments, and the vast majority came to Israel. According to Israel's Law of Return, all Jews--those who were healthy, those who were chronically ill, and those with and without disabilities--were welcome to settle in Israel. Israel's welfare principles during the 1950s were based on egalitarian principles of the redistribution of resources to benefit "the weaker classes." The following historic account describes the absorption of immigrants with disabilities in Oriel, a unique neighborhood for people with visual impairments that was established in the town of Gedera. Oriel housed 100 families of new immigrants with visual impairments who earned their living working in a sheltered workshop that was established in the neighborhood. The physical planning of the neighborhood took the visual impairment of its residents into consideration in order to maximize their independence. The data for this study were collected from the Archives of the Joint in Jerusalem, the Israel State Archives, and the Museum of Gedera History (1951-67) and were supplemented by recent interviews with the original residents of the neighborhood and their children.


The Israeli government and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the "Joint"; no date) established Malben in 1949 as an organization that would care for new immigrants who were elderly, were in ill health, or had disabilities by providing them with institutional and extra-institutional services. Pamphlets on Malben (Malben and the Joint, 1953; Malben Institutions, no date; American Joint Distribution Committee, 1962) indicated that Malben established schools for children with visual impairments, sheltered workshops that provided employment for persons with disabilities who had difficulty finding jobs in the general labor market, and the Oriel neighborhood for people with visual impairments in Gedera. Oriel was a unique project, serving as a communal housing and employment setting for people with visual impairments who enrolled in the project and received training in the required jobs.

The Joint archives indicate that Malben established the Oriel neighborhood with the intention of housing approximately 100 families, whose visually impaired heads of households would earn their living by working in workshops that were established in the neighborhood, in skills for which they would be trained. Each household was allocated a small plot to be cultivated by the spouse; most of spouses were not visually impaired. Each family was initially housed in a 36-square-meter (118 square feet) wooden cabin with a concrete floor, containing a small room, hall, kitchen, shower, and toilet. This was a relatively high standard of housing compared to the corrugated steel shacks in which other immigrants were housed. A workshop of five buildings was constructed, in which the Oriel residents would be employed in various skills. The ultimate objective was to provide proper living conditions for new immigrants with visual impairments, rendering them self-supporting. Suitable candidates for the project were selected from among the new immigrants who were visually impaired.


By the end of 1951, there were 74 families in the neighborhood--36 from Yemen, 22 from Iraq, and 16 from Bulgaria. Most heads of these households were not born with visual impairments, but had become visually impaired as a result of illness or accidents. The neighborhood was initially called the "Neighborhood of the Blind," but the residents were offended by this name. Therefore, the Gedera Local Council decided, in a meeting held in March 1951, to rename the neighborhood "Oriel" (literally "Light from God"). The physical infrastructure of the neighborhood was adapted to the residents' visual impairment. An asphalt road was paved in the neighborhood, whereas other neighborhoods in Gedera had only dirt roads. A handrail was installed leading from the cabins to the workshop, to help those who were visually impaired negotiate their way. Another handrail was installed leading from the neighborhood to the pedestrian crossing at the entrance to Gedera, with special traffic lights for people who were visually impaired. Each resident who was visually impaired was given a key to turn on the traffic lights to stop traffic. A buzzer signaled when it was safe to cross the road.

Despite the small number of residents, a separate medical clinic and grocery store were established in the Oriel neighborhood, as well as a center for social activities; a kindergarten; a ritual bath; and two small synagogues, one according to the Yemenite tradition and the other according to the Iraqi tradition. An elementary school was built bordering the neighborhood for children from Oriel and the adjacent neighborhoods. The proximity of these community services made it easier for the residents with visual impairments to care for their daily needs and to lead a more or less independent life. Most residents were religious or traditional, except those from Bulgaria. An administrator who was visually impaired was appointed for the neighborhood, and a Yemenite rabbi was appointed to serve the residents.

The residents of the Oriel neighborhood felt independent because they earned their living respectably (Izi, 1951). However, the wooden cabins often caught fire, particularly when both spouses were visually impaired, because the residents cooked on kerosene stoves. Documents in the Israel State Archives indicated that after heavy protests and demonstrations by the Oriel residents, the government finally agreed to build new houses of concrete bricks, which the residents could buy at a low price.


Although many sheltered workshops for people with visual impairments operated throughout Israel, Oriel was the only place where residences, public services, and a workshop were located in the same neighborhood. Testimonies of the inhabitants indicate that the workshop produced mattresses, brooms, baskets, lampshades, and mats. All the residents who were visually impaired, except those with motor impairments, were employed in the workshop according to the degree of their visual impairment, physical fitness, and skill. Some were paid a daily rate, and others were paid according to their output; some took work home to earn overtime pay. A few wives were employed in the workshop, performing jobs that those who were visually impaired could not perform, such as sewing or cleaning the water tanks and the workshop. Other women cultivated their plots of land or worked outside the neighborhood as agricultural laborers or domestic help. The neighborhood administrator managed the workshop. External instructors appointed by Malben were eventually replaced by residents with visual impairments. The instructors provided the raw materials, supervised the work, and recorded the workers' daily output. Personal relationships with the instructors were complex. The instructors' support was essential, but occasionally disputes arose about the division of labor or the required output.

Straw mattresses-were manufactured as follows: Two workers with low vision unloaded large bundles of straw from trucks and carried them to a machine that opened the bundles. The straw was initially ground manually, but a machine was later acquired to do so. After a visually impaired person was injured by the machine, only sighted persons were allowed to operate it. Grinding straw caused a great deal of dust, so workers received an additional liter (34 ounces) of milk per day to offset the ill effects of inhaling dust. Two or three sighted women sewed the covers of the mattresses, which were subsequently filled with straw by other workers. The mattresses were weighed and straightened by trampling on them, and the women then stitched the final seams of the mattresses.

The Ministry of Welfare sold the products, mainly to the Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Defense. The workshop operated satisfactorily and even made a profit. As the workers became aware of their success, they began to demand higher wages, claiming that they were being discriminated against because they worked 10-12 hours a day and sometimes at night but were paid less than other people who did similar work (Yanuv, 1967). However, with time, new and cheaper products, produced by automated factories, appeared on the market. Documents of the Israel State Archives and the Joint show that the Oriel workshop could not compete with these products, and the Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Defense stopped buying the workshop's products.

Malben tried other production options or teaching the workers new skills. However, these options were found to be impractical because of changing market conditions and the workers' impairments. The Malben management was sensitive to the residents' need for respectable employment, but believed that subsidizing workers with visual impairments was an inefficient way of social support. As workshop production continued to decline, the number of workers also declined, from 66 workers in 1960 to 50 in 1967, when Malben announced that it was suspending operation of the workshop. The Gedera Local Council adamantly opposed shutting down the workshop. The chairman of the council said:

"For 18 years, these visually impaired people lived with a sense of working, of supporting their families. Children respected their visually impaired fathers. We should not do anything that may ruin them emotionally. We should not do anything that will cause us to be unable to look at them, although they can't see us."

Frequent discussions between different institutions and authorities were to no avail, and the Oriel workshop was closed in September 1967, although the residents continued to live in their homes.


Our interviews revealed that several Oriel residents, notwithstanding their visual impairment, manifested remarkable organizational skills. The residents elected a committee to handle all neighborhood matters. The interviewees told us that at least one committee member would have enough visual capability to read and draft documents. The Malben management approved this initiative and hoped that the committee would care for individuals as well as for the community. The Joint archives record that Malben attempted to curtail the committee's power following a series of complaints by committee members against the Malben management and insisted that negotiations be resumed only after combative members of the committee were restrained.

The committee also organized social activities in the neighborhood's community center, such as parties and lectures. Social cohesion overcame differences in countries of origin, as one elder described: "We had one thing in common, and that was having visual impairments." In retrospect, the women described social life as pleasant. Marriages were performed at the community center, and all Oriel residents were invited to family celebrations. One woman explained: "It was great that everybody was visually impaired; that was good.... All had the same problems; we were on the same level; we were not jealous, since everybody was visually impaired." Another former Oriel resident noted, "It was a pleasure whenever we were all together; we were all brothers because we were all visually impaired."

Social relations were flavored with humor. For example, when two people who were visually impaired bumped into each other, they would say: "Watch where you are going." At work, they would joke and try to identify each other by their voices. A resident gave the following example, "One guy would imitate a donkey, and the others would try to identify him." Many men sat together and chewed gat leaves after work (gat or khat is a plant whose leaves produce a stimulant effect when chewed). Despite their visual impairment, the Oriel residents were reported to be independent and tried to overcome their difficulties.

Mutual help was an essential part of social life in Oriel. Residents would borrow money from each other for their children's marriages. They would gather in groups to study the Bible, which was read to them by a person with low vision. Mutual help primarily involved overcoming visual impairment. For example, some who were adept at using canes and could walk independently would help their neighbors who were unable to walk alone, accompanying them to the synagogue, to the workshop, or to the social center.


The children of the inhabitants, who grew up in the neighborhood, told us that they enjoyed an active social life and recalled pleasant childhood games, including hide-and-seek and soccer. The neighborhood children were a close-knit group, and children of all ages took part in their activities. From what we could learn from the records, the children seemed to have grown up normally and did not take advantage of their parents' visual impairments. The parents were strict in educating their children and sent them to study the Bible with a teacher with low vision. It was important for them that their children would be well educated and would regard themselves as equal to other children.

Some children felt uneasy about their fathers' visual impairment and avoided inviting classmates to their homes. The need to lead their fathers to teachers' meetings was also a source of embarrassment for some. Most of the second generation, however, claimed they did not feel different from their classmates from other neighborhoods. On the contrary, they sometimes felt they had an advantage over others, since they received school books free of charge and lived in relatively large homes compared to other new immigrants. The Oriel residents were also the first to receive telephones, which evoked some jealousy from the children's classmates, but also enhanced their social status.


The Oriel neighborhood provided people with visual impairments with an organizational and social framework and an opportunity to live as typical families, earning their living respectably, although not without financial support from other agencies. It was apparently a socially successful project for rehabilitating people with visual impairments and their families and provided a good quality of life for its residents. Furthermore, architectural planning, which included an accessible infrastructure, local services, and the workshop, greatly facilitated the daily activities of the residents who were visually impaired.

People with visual impairments lived in a "mixed" community of their own, together with their spouses and children who were not visually impaired. They maintained their self-esteem even in encounters with people from outside their neighborhood, since they were aware that they belonged to a community of their own. They also elected a committee representing them vis-a-vis Malben and other institutions, thus gaining some political power. The community's strong cohesion and spatial concentration apparently enabled them achieve high self-esteem.

However, that the project was not financially sustainable eventually led to the closure of the workshop. Planning of the community did not take inevitable long-term demographic changes into account. With time, children grew up and left home, people aged and no longer went to work, and spouses died. Such a changing demographic pattern could not have sustained stable employment in the workshop in any case.

The Oriel neighborhood should be viewed from a perspective of events that occurred half a century ago. This description is based on historical records of those days and on recent interviews with surviving residents and their children, the accuracy of whose accounts may be questionable after such a long time.


American Joint Distribution Committee. (1962). Fact sheets on JDC programs in Israel [in Hebrew]. Tel-Aviv: Author.

Archive of the Joint in Jerusalem. (no date). Malben, Box 44, File 267133; Box 47, File 304/13; Box 62 File 327/5; GENEVAII, Box 385B, File Malben Kfar Oriel.

Israel State Archive. (no date). Files no: C-60/ 166/6; C-109.0/2375/35; C-109.0/2375/35; cl-57.0/4235/12; cl-8.0/6295/2; cl-98.0/ 6357/9-c.

Izi, P. (1951, October 25). Malben report on the activity of its institutions in Israel [in Hebrew]. Ha'aretz [newspaper].

Lisak, M. (1999). The great immigration in the 1950s [in Hebrew]. Jerusalem: Bialik.

Malben and the Joint to the help of the needy [Hebrew]. (1953). Tel-Aviv: Alexander.

Malben institutions for caring for poor immigrants: Services of the Joint in Israel [in Hebrew]. (no date). Tel-Aviv: Achdut.

Museum of Gedera History. (1951-67). Book of protocols of the council meetings of 1951-1967 [in Hebrew]. Gedera, Israel: Author.

Yanuv, E. (1967, June 4). "We do not want welfare: We want to earn our bread with honor" [in Hebrew]. Ma'ariv [newspaper].

Miriam Billig, Ph.D., senior lecturer, Department of Architecture, College of Judea and Samaria, Ariel 44837, Israel; e-mail: <>. Rachel Sharaby, Ph.D., senior lecturer, Ashkelon Academic College and Bar-Ilan University, 2 Hashmonaim Street, Petach Tikva, 49275, Israel; e-mail: <>.
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Title Annotation:Around the World I
Author:Billig, Miriam; Sharaby, Rachel
Publication:Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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