When the Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman made his debut at Carnegie Hall in 1963, he performed while seated – a consequence of the polio that had prevented him from walking without leg supports or crutches since he was four.
“I got a standing ovation, but the New York Times reviewer wasn’t sure if it was because of the way I played or the fact that I sat down to play,” recalled Perlman, now 75. “That thing followed me for two or three years. Then people got used to me and they stopped talking about it. “
The renowned musician and conductor – the winner of 16 Grammy Awards, four Emmys and the Presidential Medal of Freedom – recently shared his experience in an online panel organized as part of Jewish Disability Advocacy Month.
Perlman was accompanied by a young synagogue pianist from New Jersey with autism, an elementary school teacher from Chicago with multiple sclerosis, a blind rabbi, and three influential members of Congress.
The event was organized by the Jewish Federations of North America to kick off 50 scheduled online events this month to highlight disability awareness and advocacy, ranging from “Israel’s Trailblazer for Disability” to “Making the World More Accessible During COVID.” .
“One in four adults in this country has a disability. That means that inclusive communities would not only be beautiful, but also vital to the future of our Jewish community, ”said Mark Wilf, Chairman of the Jewish Federation’s Board of Trustees, at the February 3rd event. “Given the small number we have as a people, we need to make sure that we use all available avenues to engage as many Jews as possible.”
One of these Jews is 35-year-old Rabbi Lauren Tuchman, who was ordained the world’s first blind female rabbi in 2018 by the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative Movement. As a resident of the Washington, DC area, she often speaks about the inclusion of disabilities.
“The Torah teaches us that we all stood together before Sinai and received the Ten Commandments. This is one of the most important, if not the most important, fundamental events in our collective experience as a Jewish people, ”said Tuchman.
She started reading at the age of 2, used a braille printer in rabbi school, and now uses a variety of software apps to help her read and study.
“Although we still live in a world with many obstacles,” said Tuchman, “with a lot of discrimination and challenges – especially in this past year of unprecedented challenges – our tradition is a tradition that commands us to always make sure we include everyone. ” and that we do everything we can to break down the barriers that prevent us from creating a society in which we can all thrive. “
Shayla Rosen, 35, is a first grade teacher at Oriole Park School in Chicago and a cabinet member of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. In 2009, doctors diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis – a debilitating disease that isn’t always obvious to outsiders.
“I’ve always said I have an invisible disease,” she said at the event. “There are times when things are difficult and I’ve learned to hide them well.”
Perlman explained how often people with disabilities are treated as invisible.
“I used to go to the airport in a wheelchair. Right now I’m on a scooter because I don’t run like I used to, ”said Perlman. “But people are still looking at you sitting in a chair and for some reason they stop talking to you and instead they talk to the person with you. For example, at the airport, the person behind the counter asked: “Where is he going?” It’s always that way. “
Last year marked the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a civil rights law that bans discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life, including work, transportation, and all places open to the general public .
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., The House Majority Leader who sponsored the passing of the ADA in 1990, described the landmark legislation during the event last week as “a great Tikkun Olam tool” that fixes the world because It Changes the World This is how Americans saw their neighbors, whose physical abilities were different from their own.
Thanks to the ADA, said Hoyer, zebra crossings with audible guides and ramps are now a matter of course. New buildings need elevators. Wheelchair-accessible ramps are standard in public buildings.
However, full equality remains difficult to achieve. Speaking with a handicapped-friendly administration at the White House, Hoyer said, “Now is the time for the disability community to continue the fight for full inclusion, access and equality.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., Whose 25-year-old son Tommy committed suicide on Dec. 31 after a lifelong battle with depression, said the issue of disability is particularly important to him.
“There are tens of millions of people with various disabilities – whether physical or psychological – and we want a society that is open to everyone and promotes the success and the best health of all,” said Raskin, thanking the Jewish associations for their lobbying work on the Capitol Hill during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Your work is more critical than ever,” he said. “There will be lobbying around telemedicine and making sure that is part of the solution. Consider me a close partner. “
Jewish lawmaker Kim Schrier, D-Wash., Said she left her job as a pediatrician to enter politics in 2017 “because I wanted everyone to be able to afford health care.”
Schrier said, among other things, she is pushing for the next stimulus package, currently being discussed in Congress, to get better insurance coverage for telemedicine as well as more funding for nutritional programs that benefit low-income Americans.
“A lot of my patients have disabilities of one kind or another. But the reason I’m here is to look for people in need of a hand – whether it’s a mother with two kids trying to get a job or a child who needs special education, ”Schrier told Darcy Hirsh, the Jewish associations’ director for government affairs.
“This is a time of truly unprecedented need in our country. Supporting the advocacy work for people with disabilities only makes sense to someone who is a mother, a pediatrician, a member of Congress and, frankly, a Jew who sees humanity in everyone. “
This article was sponsored and produced in association with the Jewish Federations of North America, which represent 146 local Jewish Federations and 300 network communities. This story was produced by JTA’s local content team.