Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Funders, Advocates, Providers Rally Around Inclusion of People with Disabilities in Jewish Life

May 23, 2013 9:41 am 0 comments

Jay Ruderman (left), president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, with Israeli Paralympic athlete Pascale Bercovitch on May 8 at ADVANCE: The Ruderman Jewish Disabilities Funding Conference, which focused on inclusion of people with disabilities in Jewish communal life. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

NEW YORK—When Pascale Bercovitch took a chair next to the podium at ADVANCE: The Ruderman Jewish Disabilities Funding Conference, she lifted herself from a sleekly designed wheelchair onto the same slightly uncomfortable chair on which each member of her audience sat.

“I am who I wanted to be. I set out to be a champ,” said the Israeli Paralympic athlete.

More than 100 members of the Jewish Funders Network (JFN) gathered in New York to attend the annual ADVANCE conference in early May. The conference brought together funders from around the Jewish world passionate about the field of special needs and disabilities, and discussions included inclusion of people with disabilities in Jewish communal life. For three days, JFN members—prospective funders—met with advocates and providers of services for people with disabilities, and visited supported worksites.

“When the continuity of our community is paramount, we need to find a way to be more inclusive of the people with disabilities in our midst,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, the conference’s sponsor. “At nearly 20 percent of the Jewish community, they are a strategic asset and very much part of our future and our long-term success as a people.”

According to a Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute study provided by JFN, approximately 1 million people with disabilities of working age are living in Israel—including Bercovitch, whose well-muscled body and attitude convey confidence. She is in a committed relationship, a mother of two, a writer, and a sportswoman.

At 16, Bercovitch came to Israel as a volunteer on an army base near Ashkelon through SAREL, a program similar to Taglit-Birthright. Her katzeen (supervising officer) was Alon Davidi (later head of the Security Council of Sderot in Israel’s south). At the end of that volunteer summer, she returned to France to complete high school, with plans to make aliyah and join the Israel Defense Forces. At 17, running to catch a train to her school, she fell. Both of her legs were severed at the mid-thighs.

When Davidi learned of the accident, he came to France. Bercovitch told his encouragement made her more determined. “I decided to do it my way—to follow my dream to become an Israeli and go to the IDF,” she said. “I so badly wanted to do it. You know what happened? I did it!”

Bercovitch, who continues to represent Israel at international Paralympic events, hardly considers herself a woman with a disability.

“I don’t think legs are a major thing in life,” she told “It is our duty to do what we can do… There is no such thing as can’t: you never know what you can do until you try.”

William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of the Washington Office of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), said the mission of the ADVANCE conference was to “find ways to open Abraham’s tent.” Daroff is the Federation umbrella’s go-to domestic policy expert, including when it comes to health and human services. His portfolio includes working on setting JFNA’s positions on Medicare, Medicaid and long-term care, as well as policies affecting people with disabilities.

JFNA’s policy is to celebrate diversity while creating a sense of unity within the community. “It is a responsibility for each Jewish soul, to light a flame of welcome,” Daroff said.

Following his presentation at the conference, asked Daroff about the long-term effects of advances in prenatal genetic testing, particularly whether or not early knowledge about genetic abnormalities can reduce the future population of people with disabilities.

“It’s controversial,” Daroff said. “The new test for Down’s syndrome that relies on a blood test in the first trimester is about 90 percent accurate.” Without qualification, he stated, “You’re going to see fewer people with Down’s syndrome. As time goes on, as testing gets more sophisticated, we’ll be able to identify other things as well.”

In the Jewish community, especially among Orthodox segments, genetic testing is a regular part of pre-marriage health care for young men and women.

“There is massive testing, and it’s only going to get more intense as you have more and more people aware of what’s possible,” Daroff said.

Jewish ethics, Daroff said, “obviously allows prenatal testing—without a question.”

“Where I come from, it’s an individual choice,” Daroff said. “I resent the attempt of the whole right to life community trying to hijack this issue from people with disabilities.”

The ADVANCE conference presenters mirrored its agenda quite closely, integrating experts and advocates, people with disabilities stemming from neurological and accidental sources, prospective funders, and others into a program of education and experiential content.

NPR investigative reporter Joseph Shapiro, an advocate for people with disabilities, they have “redefined what it means to have disabilities” and “seek understanding of their needs.” People with disabilities represent the “one minority group we can all join at any moment,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro said the needs of people with disabilities could have a positive impact on general society. For example, curb cuts created to ease street crossing for people in wheelchairs help thousands daily—from kids on scooters to elderly people with walkers.

People with disabilities “must not be treated as commodities,” Shapiro said, adding that care for them “should be in the most inclusive setting possible… When people are included, good things happen.”

Autism, and integration of people with autism, into Jewish social institutions, was a major focus of the ADVANCE conference. Marne Aldrich of the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education, told regarding the perceived increase in the numbers of children with autism, “I do not believe there is actually an increase in the number affected children, rather, diagnostics testing has become more sensitive.”

“There is a change in the diagnostic criteria, greater awareness and more understanding, mot an increase in absolute numbers,” she said.

Conference attendee Ari Ne’eman, diagnosed with autism at age 12, is an advocate for people with autism and president of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN). He believes the Jewish perspective on disability issues is many years behind the perspective of the general community.

Ne’eman told the Jewish community needs “an agenda that focuses on integrative services” for people with disabilities. When it comes to autism, Ne’eman said there are “a lot of stereotypes.”

“There is a perception that autism should be portrayed as a tragedy in need of cure,” he said. “That’s not our belief… We [at ASAN] try to inform that autism is broader than many understand and help change the public perception.”

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.

Current day month ye@r *


  • Arts and Culture Beliefs and concepts What’s That Huge White Bridal Dress Floating Over the Tower of David?

    What’s That Huge White Bridal Dress Floating Over the Tower of David? –  “What’s that huge white bridal dress floating over the Tower of David?” That’s what visitors to Jerusalem’s Old City asked last week. The wedding gown, created by leading Israeli artist Motti Mizrachi, is part of the 2nd Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art, an event that blew into town as the Sukkot holiday got underway. Mizrachi, who lives and works in Tel Aviv, created the dress that floats majestically over the Tower of David, the main exhibition site […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion The Top 10 Places to Visit in Israel

    The Top 10 Places to Visit in Israel

    Israel is a holiday destination on many travelers’ bucket lists. No matter the style of holiday you are after, Israel has the answer. Whether you prefer to relax by the beach, hike up mountains in the desert, visit religious and historical sites, eat your way through the country or just enjoy some retail therapy, your journey through Israel will be one to remember. While there are obviously so many things to see and do, here is a list of 10 of […]

    Read more →
  • Pioneers/Philanthropists US & Canada Jewish American Fashion Mogul Ralph Lauren to Step Down as CEO

    Jewish American Fashion Mogul Ralph Lauren to Step Down as CEO – Jewish American fashion mogul Ralph Lauren announced his plan to step down as chief executive officer of the renowned fashion brand. The head of Gap Inc’s Old Navy brand will take over the position. The 75-year-old Lauren, who founded Ralph Lauren Corp. in 1967, will continue to serve as executive chairman and will continue leading the fashion house’s design team, according to a statement by the company. After the announcement, Ralph Lauren shares rose 3.79 percent while Gap shares […]

    Read more →
  • Featured Sports US & Canada Jewish Boxer Dustin ‘White Tiger’ Fleischer Scores Fourth Knockout Victory

    Jewish Boxer Dustin ‘White Tiger’ Fleischer Scores Fourth Knockout Victory

    Jewish boxer Dustin Fleischer, who said his quest is to become the first world champion descended from a Holocaust survivor, stayed unbeaten with a first-round knockout. Fleischer, nicknamed “The White Tiger,” moved to 4-0 with the defeat of Ira Frank on Saturday night in Beach Haven, New Jersey, near his home, he reported after the fight on his Facebook page. The 26-year-old welterweight has won all his bouts by knockout. Read full story at JTA.

    Read more →
  • Featured Israel Pioneers/Philanthropists Meet Israel’s Santa Claus, the Trustee Tasked With Handing Out Leona Helmsley’s Billions (INTERVIEW)

    Meet Israel’s Santa Claus, the Trustee Tasked With Handing Out Leona Helmsley’s Billions (INTERVIEW)

    Renowned New York attorney Sandor (Sandy) Frankel, one of four trustees of the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, was in Israel earlier this month to look at additional philanthropic options and to observe the progress of those endeavors already funded – to the tune of multi-millions. Frankel, who recently joined the prestigious Park Avenue law firm Otterbourg P.C., met with Israeli politicians and other bigwigs to get a sense from them about which projects in the country […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Food Spirituality/Tradition ‘Pastry Secrets’ Arrive Just in Time for Rosh Hashanah

    ‘Pastry Secrets’ Arrive Just in Time for Rosh Hashanah – Babka. Strudel. Stollen. Danish pastry. Not to mention Gugelhopf and Charlotte. The names set the mouth to watering and conjure up lovingly concocted pastries that feed the body and comfort the soul. If you didn’t have a grandmother who baked these delicacies, you wish that you had. George Greenstein was never a grandmother, but his life as a baker provided his children and grandchildren with memories infused with the smell of fresh baked bread and rugelach. His daughters, Julia […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Spirituality/Tradition Fusing Israeli and Holocaust History, Novel Offers a ‘Middle Eastern Western’

    Fusing Israeli and Holocaust History, Novel Offers a ‘Middle Eastern Western’ – There is a game that all of us have played at some time in our lives. We ask ourselves: What would my life be like if I had gone to this school instead of that one, or if I had married this girl instead of that one? In their newly published book The Ambassador, authors Yehuda Avner and Matt Rees play that game with modern Jewish history. Avner — who died earlier this year, and was a speechwriter, secretary and adviser to […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Lifestyle A Toulouse Fashion Student Finds Style and Harmony in the Holy Land

    A Toulouse Fashion Student Finds Style and Harmony in the Holy Land

    A unique group of young fashion bloggers and designers recently visited Israel to learn more about the country’s fashion industry and diverse culture. Hailing from the Philippines, Korea, Kenya, Japan, Brazil, Spain, France, Germany, Russia, and the U.K., the 10 participants toured the country and met with top Israeli fashion designers throughout last week. “It was an amazing experience,” said Meissene Maghni from Toulouse, France — one of the participants of the program. “I’m Muslim and I really wanted to see Israel […]

    Read more →