By Josh Hasten
(JNS) Rashi Kuhr says that it would always take him a long time to read a book. But Kuhr, a 46-year-old immigrant to Israel from the United States who was born with a learning disability, says that around 15 years ago, his life changed forever.
With the release of the Apple iPod and the newfound availability of audio books, a whole new world opened up for him, in which he was able to enjoy the pleasure of reading at a fast rate since he could listen to the words of the book and follow along simultaneously.
As a result of that experience, in 2016, Kuhr – now an educational psychologist in the Ma’ale Efraim school system located in the Jordan Valley – decided to found the Israel Audiobook Project, an organization that enables thousands of special-education students throughout Israel to experience the joy of reading books.
Kuhr, along with his partner Moshe Saltzman, who handles the technical aspects of the organization, decided that the first book they wanted to produce in an audio format would be the Roald Dahl 1964 classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
He tells JNS that “we approached Roald Dahl” – The Roald Dahl Story Company Ltd manages the copyrights and trademarks of author Roald Dahl – “in England and explained that we wanted to turn their book into an audiobook, and give it out for free to special-education students in Israel. I assumed they would ask for a substantial sum of money, but they agreed and gave us the rights for just $1,000!”
Kuhr then approached the Israeli publisher of the book, who donated the translation rights to his organization for free. After finding a professional voice talent to read the book for the recording, they were on their way.
Once the audiobook was available and uploaded to the organization’s website, Kuhr was able to give the password to special-education teachers across the country to access the Hebrew-language audio version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
“The kids loved it,” he says. “They were so excited to be able to finish their first book.”
Books vs. video and games
Since that first audiobook was created, Kuhr says that an additional 10 books have been translated, recorded and uploaded. “Over 10,000 kids have listened to our books in over 600 schools all over Israel,” he says.
Kuhr notes that the current goal is to try and produce at least 10 new books annually over the course of the academic year.
In order to make that goal a reality, his organization has developed relationships with more publishers and authors in order to get the rights to additional books. According to Kuhr, most of them are generally thrilled to be a part of the project.
Tzlil Zagury is a fifth-grade special-education teacher in an elementary school in the Jewish community of Nili, in the Binyamin Regional Council in Judea and Samaria. She utilizes the audiobooks as part of her curriculum. She tells JNS that when her students listen to the audio and follow along with a book, “you can see that they are now able to process what they are reading. It’s like the brain takes a picture of the words [in the story]. All of a sudden, they understand, and that leads to them having a feeling of success.”
Zagury hopes to expand the project further offering more hours of reading to more children.
Michal Malka has a 10-year-old daughter named Ma’ayan in the Nili School’s special-education program. She says that before being introduced to the audiobooks, her daughter couldn’t read and was intimidated to even try doing so. But ever since the audiobooks were introduced, Malka says that her daughter “has developed confidence. She has the will now to try and understand more, and to read more. It’s a start.”
Thanks to Kuhr, not only are Jewish children in special-education classes now being given the audiobook experience, but Israeli Arab children as well. Kuhr has partnered with Almanarah – an organization committed to assisting people with disabilities in the Arab sector – and they have started translating the books into Arabic as well, to be used by Arab children in special-education classes, free of charge.
So far, two books, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Wizard of Oz, have been translated from English into Arabic and made into audiobooks as a result of this new partnership.
But the greatest challenge? Securing funding to create more audiobooks. Right now, the project relies on volunteers to read the audiobook recordings, and the income is minimal since Kuhr insists that students not be charged for the books. His goal is to model the organization after the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s PJ Library, a U.S.-based organization that mails free age-appropriate books and music CDs to Jewish (and interfaith) families on a monthly basis. A branch of the PJ library does exist in Israel.
Kuhr is also adamant about the importance of the project for children with special needs.
“I feel that some students latch on to reading from a young age, and if their parents read to them and go to the library, those kids are successful at school. Other kids’ parents don’t connect to reading, and [those kids] are drawn to video games and videos. They don’t meet their full potential,” he explains. “I want to hook those kids on becoming consumers of high-quality audiobooks and podcasts in their free time.”