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 JNS.org 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 JNS.org. “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, JNS.org 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 JNS.org 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 JNS.org 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.”