By Tony Glaros
As humanity scrambles to fill in the blanks during the pandemic, John Riehl readily concedes he doesn’t have all the answers.
Especially when grappling with how the High Holidays will play out.
“’We’re struggling with that,” says Riehl, 67, who has held a flurry of titles at Oseh Shalom, a Reconstructionist congregation in Laurel.
“One of the hardest things with prayer services, especially with the High Holy Days, is having people physically together in the sanctuary. It creates energy. We’re not going to have that this year.”
Like other congregations, Oseh Shalom has opted to shorten the length of its services, Riehl says, reasoning that “nobody wants to sit in front of a computer for three or four hours. That’s a death knell.”
Once the service is over, there will be an opportunity to take part in an online “schmooze room” designed to cultivate more personal, albeit electronic, connection with others.
Whatever daunting question marks life poses, Riehl is adept at problem-solving.
He was born nearly two months premature in an Army hospital in Fort Campbell, Ky. In those days, preemies were routinely placed in incubators where they were given a chance to grow and strengthen, he says. In his case, he got too much pure oxygen, causing the optic nerve to burn out, resulting in permanent blindness.
Riehl says he spent his formative years in Frankfurt, West Germany, where his father was stationed at the time. Even at the age of 4 and 5, Riehl remembers listening to a program on Armed Forces Radio called “The Eternal Light.” The broadcast was peppered with Bible stories about the Exodus and epic figures like King David. It also traced events from the Holocaust, he says. That aural odyssey, traveling through the ether and crackling through the speakers, laid the groundwork for what was to unfold years later during his spiritual journey.
Meanwhile, he embraced the conventions of Presbyterianism, starting with his baptism as a baby. That was followed by attending Sunday school and summer Bible camp. “In seventh and eighth grade, when you become a teenager, you start questioning stuff,” said Riehl. “The notion of Jesus dying on the cross to save people from their sins — I couldn’t believe that.”
That led him on a quest, learning all he could about other religions. However, he stopped short of committing himself to one particular spiritual expression.
When he was 6, the family settled in San Jose, Calif. It was an era when only a handful of public schools permitted blind students to be mainstreamed into general education classrooms.
“I attended classes with everybody else. We would do our work on a Braille writer” and submit it to the teachers that way.
Luckily, Riehl and other blind students could draw on their ability to type, which they were required to learn as far back as elementary school, and turn in their work that way.
“We learned on standard portable typewriters. It was a tremendous window directly communicating to the sighted world. It was really cool, a high.”
During high school, Riehl began attending Shabbat services at a Conservative synagogue. What he encountered in the old Silverman Machzor was immersive.
“Some of the liturgical prayers had imagery of warriors and bards and kings. The language was very poetic,” conjuring images of “Lord of the Rings.”
In 1975, after earning a degree from the Monterey Institute of Foreign Studies, Riehl moved to Laurel, where he found work at the Defense Department. That’s when his mother informed him of a small synagogue down the street from his apartment, Oseh Shalom. He decided to try it and he liked what he found.
When he made the decision to convert to Judaism, “my parents were very supportive.”
Tapping the services of the Jewish Braille Institute, a nonprofit that offers an array of services to the blind, Riehl had an adult bar mitzvah at Oseh Shalom. “My dad came east and stood on the bimah with me.”
Now, as former president of the board, and in his role overseeing religious instruction, even helping set up daily reflections via Zoom, Riehl says his disability has never impeded his light from shining.
“In the beginning, nobody made a big deal out of the fact that I couldn’t see,” he says. “They accepted me as a member. They accepted me as a volunteer. I’m a person who is blind, not a blind person.”
“John is an absolute inspiration, someone who takes command of so many things in Jewish ritual,” says Charles Bernhardt, the cantor at Oseh Shalom, who will retire in November after 37 years singing there. “It wouldn’t be a stretch to say Oseh Shalom wouldn’t be the congregation it is now without John Riehl.”
Bernhardt said he often watches in awe as Riehl reads prayers in braille, clutching the enormous siddur in one hand while reading with the other. When he enjoys teasing Riehl about his adroitness, Riehl is armed with a good-natured comeback: “He says, “I don’t know how you can drive a car at 65 miles an hour!’”
Tony Glaros is a Washington-area writer.