With $1m Genesis Prize, Itzhak Perlman Eyes a More Inclusive World

Photo credit Sheila Katz via Facebook
Photo credit Sheila Katz via Facebook

By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman

In his book, “To Heal a Fractured World,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recalls how renowned Israeli-American violinist, conductor, and pedagogue Itzhak Perlman came onto the stage at Lincoln Center in New York City to play a violin concerto – presumably something he had done many times before.

But as Perlman sat down to play this time in 1995, one of the strings on his violin broke. The audience assumed that Perlman would have to find another violin or another string for the one he was using – delaying the concert. Instead, Perlman waited a moment, closed his eyes, and signaled the conductor to begin.

He played the entire concerto on just three strings.

Afterwards – following a standing ovation – Perlman spoke. He said, “Sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what remains.”

That story, retold by Israeli Knesset Speaker Yuli-Yoel Edelstein during a ceremony held at the Knesset on June 22, was meant to encapsulate the message that “we have to make the world a better place with what we have,” said Edelstein.

On June 23 in Jerusalem, Perlman received the 2016 Genesis Prize, an award that honors individuals who have attained excellence in their professional fields, have made a significant contribution to humanity, and serve as an inspiration to others through their dedication to Jewish values and the State of Israel. The annual prize, a partnership of the State of Israel, The Jewish Agency, and the Genesis Prize Foundation, carries a $1 million reward, which Perlman said he will use to primarily to invest in projects that foster greater integration of people with disabilities into Israeli and North American societies.

The Knesset event on June 22, which besides honoring Perlman highlighted the work Israel is doing to integrate people with disabilities into society, discussed integration challenges and plans for improvement. In recent years, the Israeli legislature has become a leader in the field of integration of people with disabilities. In 1998, the Knesset passed the Equal Rights for People with Disabilities Law. Today, the Knesset employs 20 individuals with special needs in various roles.

“Those Knesset employees prove day in and day out that helping the disabled lead creative, productive lives is not charity, but that it is in our own collective interest to do so,” said event emcee Donna Weiss.

Recently, the Knesset held a gathering of heads of various government ministries and departments to discuss ways to make the legislative body more accessible to people with special needs, said Edelstein. A similar conference is planned with leading business executives to make sure that the Israeli economy “can be accessible to all of our citizens.”

Disability rights activist and commentator Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of the RespectAbility organization, told JNS.org that it is a primary Jewish value to respect people with disabilities.

“Moses had a speech impediment,” said Mizrahi. “He talked to God and said he should not be the leader because of his disability. And yet, God chose Moses. Aaron was like an accommodation for him … Someone with a disability might need someone without a disability to partner with him, but the utmost can be achieved.”

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said he grew up when being Jewish was a “disability” in and of itself.

“We knew nothing about our Jewishness, our tradition or history, nothing about our religion, but we knew very well we were Jewish because it was written on the ID of our parents and all the conversations at home were about restrictions,” Sharansky said at the Knesset, noting that in the former Soviet Union, Jews could not learn certain subjects or hold certain jobs.

“The message from our parents was that because you were born with this disability called Judaism, you must be the best in the class – the best at physics or music or chess – that is the way to survive,” recalled Sharansky.

“[Perlman’s] story of overcoming extraordinary personal challenges to excel as one of the world’s greatest musicians and humanitarians is so reflective of the inherent strength of the Jewish character,” said the Genesis Prize Foundation’s chairman and co-founder, Stan Polovets.

Perlman, who was born in Israel, said he is “proud to be an Israeli” and noted that while the Jewish state has taken many positive steps to include and empower people with disabilities, “there is still work to be done.”

Israelis with disabilities, like people with disabilities in other countries, face physical barriers. At times, they are unable to have access to spaces that others take for granted, including public and religious spaces, community centers, parks, and so on.

“I speak from personal experience,” said Perlman. “This is all very personal to me.”

Jay Ruderman – president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which prioritizes the issue of disability rights and has worked to improve accessibility in Israel over the last 12 years – said inclusion laws in Israel are solid, but are often not enforced.

Further, there are barriers created in Israel by attitudes toward people with disabilities, which make it difficult for individuals with special needs to achieve their full potential, said Perlman.

“People with talent are seen through the lens of their disability, rather than ability,” he said. “Society stands to lose from this unfulfilled potential … Don’t look at that person who cannot walk or talk. Ask: What can you do?”

Perlman said he will use his $1 million prize money – which is amplified by matching funds that raise the total to $3 million – to improve access and infrastructure and change the public’s attitude. He noted that some changes might require legislation, while others will center on educational campaigns. For example, he envisions an educational program for architects and interior designers that would show them what it is like for a person in a wheelchair to maneuver in a closed space.

As a maestro, Perlman has traveled all over the world. He said that he has encountered countless hotels with one or no accessible room.

“That does not work for me,” Perlman said. “We have to have a way of life so we don’t have to worry about what, if anything, is accessible. I want to be able to go to a concert and say I know I can get in there. I don’t want to have to call ahead … This is a goal and a dream, and I hope one day it will come true.”

He continued, “This is not charity work … Israel is a small country. Its strength is the talent of the Jewish people. We must cultivate every citizen’s potential.”

Mizrahi said Perlman has long been “a role model for something that is my passion – showing the abilities of people with disabilities. He never lets his disabilities limit him, and he is a stigma-buster with disabilities of the highest order.” She added, “Giving the Genesis Prize to an individual with a disability has the power to be transformative in our community.”

In the United States, according to the U.S. Census, 18.6 percent of Americans have a disability. In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. But all faith-based organizations were exempt from that law. As such, many Jewish institutions are devoid of ramps or have doors that are too narrow to enter in a wheelchair. Many buildings do not even have a single accessible bathroom. A RespectAbility survey of 2,607 engaged Jews found that one out of every five Jews with disabilities have “been turned away or unable to participate in a Jewish event or activity because of their disability.” The survey also found that 32 percent of Jews with disabilities said they had never been to Israel, compared to 13 percent of all respondents.

Mizrahi said that she is among those who are hopeful that through the Genesis Prize, which was granted to former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2014 and actor Michael Douglas in 2015, Perlman will play an even greater role in changing this reality.

“You are an advocate for those whose bodies are disabled but whose spirits never are,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Perlman in his speech at the June 23 prize event. “I think you are a source of inspiration for those without special needs, because it tells us what we can achieve if we choose to overcome our disabilities.”

Actress Helen Mirren, the Genesis Prize event emcee, added, “When you look at someone like Perlman, you realize there are no boundaries.”