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 Features Opinion Playwrite Iddo Netanyahu: ‘Hitler Always Talked About Peace’ (INTERVIEW)

    Playwrite Iddo Netanyahu: ‘Hitler Always Talked About Peace’ (INTERVIEW)

    Late Friday night, on November 13, I was headed for bed when an ominous news bulletin flashed across my computer screen – something about a shooting in Paris. It wasn’t long before the “small number” of shootings and casualties began to double and triple and quadruple. The locations of attacks seemed crazily disorganized, and the tweets and videos became more and more horrifying. It was a long night for many stunned observers. We tried to understand what was happening, and […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Theater BDS Gives Belgian-Jewish Actress New Lease on Life in Tel Aviv

    BDS Gives Belgian-Jewish Actress New Lease on Life in Tel Aviv

    In an interview with the Israeli site nrg on Wednesday, Belgian-Jewish stage actress Noemi Schlosser recounted immigrating to Israel after her career in Europe was destroyed by BDS. Schlosser said she had enjoyed success in Belgium and international acclaim until she was targeted by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement for her pro-Israel stance during Operation Protective Edge — last summer’s war against Hamas in Gaza. She described watching the theaters where she performed go from packed to nearly empty over a short period of […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports In Israel for Champions League Soccer Match, Chelsea Manager Says Team Not Worried About Security Situation

    In Israel for Champions League Soccer Match, Chelsea Manager Says Team Not Worried About Security Situation

    The manager of the Chelsea Football Club said on Monday that he is looking forward to playing in Israel this week against Maccabi Tel Aviv, in spite of the security situation, Israeli news site nrg reported. Jose Murinho, who is already in Israel with his team to compete against Maccabi in the Champions League soccer match, was  asked whether he was worried about the current wave of Palestinian violence sweeping the country. “I have no worries at all regarding the security situation, and neither do […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Opinion In the Middle East, ‘The Tail Wags the Dog’ (REVIEW)

    In the Middle East, ‘The Tail Wags the Dog’ (REVIEW)

    Blaming the West has become the most pervasive method of teaching for many Middle East studies departments, which are becoming the heart of pop-culture academia. Efraim Karsh, a distinguished professor of Middle Eastern studies at Bar-Ilan University and professor emeritus at King’s College London, in his latest book The Tail Wags the Dog: International Politics and the Middle East, dispels this myth. “Britain’s ‘original sin,’ if such was indeed committed, lay not in the breaking up of Middle Eastern unity but […]

    Read more →
  • Features Spirituality/Tradition With Popularity and Sales up, ‘Mensch on a Bench’ Has Much to Smile About

    With Popularity and Sales up, ‘Mensch on a Bench’ Has Much to Smile About – The Mensch on a Bench is so much happier now than he was a year ago. Look carefully and you will notice that, whereas the previous Mensch had a decidedly worried look, this latest version of the popular Hanukkah toy is flashing an exuberant grin. Is the erstwhile Mensch smiling because he expects to be in some 100,000 homes by year’s end? In truth, the change in visage was suggested last year by the “sharks” on ABC’s Shark Tank […]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Adam Sandler Updates Famous ‘Chanukah Song,’ Includes Hulk Hogan, David Beckham and Scarlett Johansson in Latest Version

    Adam Sandler Updates Famous ‘Chanukah Song,’ Includes Hulk Hogan, David Beckham and Scarlett Johansson in Latest Version

    Actor Adam Sandler unveiled a new version of his famous “Chanukah Song” on Saturday, adding a slew of Jewish celebrities to the ditty’s updated lyrics. The comedian — who released the original song about being Jewish during Christmas in 1996 — performed the latest version of the comedic track during the New York Comedy Festival at Carnegie Hall. Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee, actor Jake Gyllenhaal and “the two guys who founded Google” are among the famous Jewish celebrities now in the line up. Sandler also included lyrics about Star Wars‘ Princess […]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Famed Israeli Violinist Itzhak Perlman to Receive Presidential Medal of Freedom

    Famed Israeli Violinist Itzhak Perlman to Receive Presidential Medal of Freedom – Famed Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman will be among the 17 recipients of America’s Presidential Medal of Freedom next week. He is the fourth Israeli to receive the highest civilian honor in the US. “A native of Israel, he came to the United States at a young age and was introduced to Americans broadly when he appeared on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ in 1958. Mr. Perlman made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1963 when he was 18,” a White House […]

    Read more →
  • Features Spirituality/Tradition Don’t Think Israel is a Luxury Destination? Check Out These 6 Spots

    Don’t Think Israel is a Luxury Destination? Check Out These 6 Spots – While Israel is a common destination for cultural and religious pilgrimages, travelers seeking the best hotels, fine dining, and upscale relaxation less often find themselves in the Holy Land. Yet in recent years, the country’s burgeoning tech scene has attracted a business crowd accustomed to ritzy accommodation. Besides, the permanent summer of Tel Aviv and Eilat makes them prime destinations for European vacationers. Israel’s populace managed to tame the swamps and irrigate the desert — so going luxury should […]

    Read more →