Rudolphina Menzel was born in 1891 in Vienna, to a wealthy family. She received a PhD in biology, psychology and chemistry from the University of Vienna, and was active in Zionist student bodies during her student years.
After completing her studies in 1915, she married Rudolph Menzel, a physician. Menzel the husband shared his wife’s devotion to dogs, and in a few years the couple opened a dog ranch at their home, where they bred and trained dogs.
They also performed groundbreaking psychological research on the dogs and gave courses on training dogs for security purposes.
An unusual feature of the “Menzel dogs” was that, in accordance with their trainers’ ideological tendency, they were taught to follow commands only in Hebrew. Most of the dogs were sent to the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine, but some were purchased by the Austrian police and the German army. And so, in the kind of ironic twist reserved for history alone, the first dogs of the German army, later to become the army of the Third Reich, obeyed only Hebrew commands.
Soldiers on all fours
In 1938, following Hitler’s demand that the couple lend their dog training services to the Nazi military, they fled from Austria to Palestine. Once here, they set out to turn their vision into reality – training dogs to protect the Jewish Yishuv. Menzel founded the Canine Research and Training Institution in Kiryat Motzkin, where the couple continued their research and developed an evaluation system that assessed dogs’ suitability for “military service”.
One of Menzel’s most important achievements in this respect was training dogs to detect land mines.
The Hagana canine unit was founded with Menzel’s professional guidance. This unit formed the basis of the Oketz unit – the canine unit of the Israel Defense Forces which exists and operates until today.
A substantial part of Menzel’s endeavours also had to do with training guide dogs for the blind. Unfortunately, when she passed away in the 1960’s the programme was abandoned.
A dream comes true
The Israel Guide Dog Centre for the Blind began as a dream of a young paratrooper in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF)in the 1980’s. A lifelong animal lover, Noach Braun trained dogs in the army for military purposes.
When Noach left the military, he dreamed of continuing to work with animal and to use them to help people. To his surprise, Noach discovered that at the time there were no guide dog schools in Israel.
Noach decided to make it his life’s mission to re-establish a guide dog school in Israel so as to continue the work of Rudolphina Menzl in the 1960’s—so all blind or visually impaired Israelis could obtain the mobility, independence and companionship that only a guide dog can provide.
Prior to the Centre opening in 1991, a visually impaired Israeli had to go to Jerusalem to pass an English test. If they understood English well enough, they were then sent to either the USA or the UK for a month of instruction with a guide dog. Not only was this hard on their families, but the dogs were not trained to handle obstacles and challenges found only in Israel—traffic circles, cars parked on sidewalks, security barriers, aggressive drivers, warning sirens and other issues that simply do not exist in other countries. Plus, the dogs were trained in English, not Hebrew.
At 26, Noach went to America to find a guide dog school that would teach him to become an instructor. He called the ten major guide dog schools in America. Devastated when each rejected his request to be an apprentice, Noach almost gave up on his dream. In a last-ditch effort, he turned to the Israeli Consulate in New York for help. They introduced him to Norman Leventhal, a well-connected Pennsylvania businessman active in Jewish causes.
Norman had no experience with visually impaired people. He didn’t know anyone who was blind and had never seen a working guide dog. What he did have was a strong commitment to the Jewish community and assisting people in need.
Norman invited Noach to join his family for dinner on the first night of Chanukah in 1986. As Norman later put it, “I never met a man who was more focused on helping others. He was the true definition of a mensch. I had to help him.”
Norman managed to get the Director of Pilot Dogs in Columbus, Ohio, to accept Noach into their guide dog mobility instructor training programme. And so, the dream began to become a reality.
After 18 months at Pilot Dogs, Noach managed to be accepted for further training with UK Guide Dogs and at the end of 1990, he became a certified Guide Dog Mobility Instructor.
Things get going
In 1990 the UK Association of the Blind with assistance from UK Guide Dogs and the Jewish Blind Society co-sponsored Noach to train at a UK Guide Dogs training centre in Exeter in southern England to complete his training to become a certified Guide Dog Mobility Instructor. This was made possible by the efforts of Anthony Kriais, who was at that time the Chief Executive of the UK Jewish Blind Society and a guide dog user Tamar Perkins.
While Noach was learning to be an instructor, his wife Orna was learning how to establish the dog breeding programme. Orna has been a full partner in the entire process and is now Director of Animal Services. At the same time, Norman Leventhal in the USA, launched a non-profit ‘Friends’ organisation to raise funds to establish a guide dog training programme in Israel. Their heads full of knowledge, Noach and Orna returned to Israel to continue the journey.
At the end of the first Gulf War, Noach, who had been called up to reserve duty in the army, returned to civilian life and found a small house in Kfar Yedidya, a moshav near Netanya. The Israel Guide Dog Centre was born, and Noach started training the first guide dog, Tillie, a Yellow Labrador, which had been provided by UK Guide Dogs.
After Tillie was trained, Noach invited Haim Tsur to be his first client. Tsur, a concert violinist from Jerusalem met Noach in the USA and was a veteran guide dog owner. Already on his fifth guide dog, he lived with Noach’s family while completing his training, graduating with Tillie at his side in 1991.
The Israel Guide Dog Centre for the Blind is born
In 1994, having outgrown the house in Kfar Yedidya, the organisation moved to Beit Oved working from metal trailers which provided very limited offices and student accommodation.
The organisation became known as the Israel Guide Dog Centre for the Blind. At the same time the British Friends were formed by Anthony Krais and the late Joe Rubins. They were very fortunate to have the late Lady Amelia Jacobovits (wife of the then Chief Rabbi) as their founding Patron. The British Friends inaugural meeting was held in her home.
In 2001, following an appeal letter a magnificent donation was received from Lady Elizabeth Kaye enough for a purpose built residential, administrative and training complex to be built bearing her name which is where until today blind and visually impaired clients come to be ‘matched’ with and trained to work with their guide dogs.
Sadly, Norman Leventhal passed away in February 2020 at the age of 90. He will always be remembered for his ‘vision’ and help in making Noach’s dream a reality. Baruch dayan emet.