This February marks the 10-year anniversary of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). It’s a time for all of us to learn, grow and pay tribute to those in our communities who face obstacles in their day-to-day lives. In honor of JDAIM, we’re celebrating three “Jewish Gems” who have excelled while living with a physical handicap, and the achievements they’ve made in their fields.
Pascale Bercovitch was a rising gymnastics star in France when, at 17, she lost both legs after slipping on the tracks in front of an oncoming train. Her family thought her life was over, but seven months after becoming paraplegic, Bercovitch moved to Israel to pursue her goal of joining the Israel Defense Forces, accepting a volunteer position at an IDF army base. She later worked as a journalist and documentary filmmaker before deciding to put her natural athletic skills to good use after being asked in 2007 to join the Israeli Paralympic rowing team. Though Bercovitch had never practiced the sport, and had only 10 months to pick it up, the team made it to the finals of the 2008 Summer Paralympics. She later picked up para-cycling, handcycling and is now a formidable paracanoe athlete, representing Israel on the world stage. Pascale’s inherent belief in herself and her fearless pursuit of her goals has also made her an inspirational motivational speaker around the world.
At age 21, American actress Marlee Matlin won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Children of a Lesser God — making her the first, and so far only, deaf performer to win an Academy Award. At 18 months old she lost all hearing in her left ear and 80% in her right due to a genetic condition. Growing up in Morton Grove, Illinois, her family joined a synagogue for the deaf, where she learned Hebrew phonetically and had a Bat Mitzvah. She also took acting classes at the International Center on Deafness and the Arts. She was discovered at the age of seventeen by actor Henry Winkler (a Jewish Gem unto himself), which led to her 1986 film debut in Children of a Lesser God. Since then, Marlee has had memorable roles in The West Wing, Seinfeld and the Broadway revival of Spring Awakening; last year she joined the cast of Quantico. Marlee credits her parents and her inclusive Jewish upbringing for her confidence. She is actively involved in many charitable organizations, including her local Jewish Federation, and recently received the Morton E. Ruderman Award for her work advocating for inclusion.
Itzhak Perlman is perhaps the most famous violinist alive today. While millions of people know his name, most are not aware that he’s been a member of the community of people living with disabilities since the tender age of 4, when he contracted polio and lost the use of his legs. Born in Tel Aviv in 1945, on the cusp of Israeli independence, Itzhak became infatuated with the violin after listening to a classical music performance on the radio. At three years old, he was denied admission to a local conservatory for being too small to hold a violin. He decided to teach himself using a toy fiddle. He was finally admitted to the local conservatory, followed by the music academy in Tel Aviv and later the Julliard School in New York City. As a soloist he became a star in both the classical and pop culture world, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, at Carnegie Hall, at the White House — including a state dinner for Queen Elizabeth II — on The Tonight Show and even on Sesame Street. Despite his requirement to sit for every performance and his lifelong use of crutches (and, more recently, an electric scooter), Itzhak is one of the world’s leading classical musicians, music educators and symphonic conductors, and continues to perform to this day.