Renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman has performed all over the world—at Carnegie Hall, in the White House, as part of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, traveling to cities like Warsaw and Budapest. Perlman is a 16-time Grammy Award winner, a recipient of national awards from three US presidents, including the Medal of Liberty, the National Medal of Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016, he became the third recipient of the Genesis Prize, an award honoring his contributions to humanity and his dedication to honoring Jewish values and the state of Israel.
Yet, despite his myriad successes, Perlman acknowledges the daily challenges that he faces as a person living with physical mobility issues as a result of his childhood polio. Perlman, who has used crutches in the past and currently uses as an electric scooter, recently spoke with leaders in the Jewish disability inclusion field over lunch at Russ & Daughters at The Jewish Museum, convened by the Genesis Prize Foundation. Perlman shared about his personal challenges in accessing many public spaces and his awareness that people who use wheelchairs are still too often marginalized.
Perlman described the way that people can overlook and ignore those who use wheelchairs—he has experienced it many times first-hand. Despite his celebrity, he described instances of being in public settings like airports, when an agent would speak to the person pushing his chair—and not to him. Because his career has necessitated world travel, he is especially sensitive and aware of the challenges posed to people who use electric scooters as he does in terms of air travel—where bathrooms are not big enough to accommodate most wheelchairs. He also emphasized that most hotels lack rooms with appropriate showers and wheelchair access. Even in cities like New York, where Perlman resides, he needs an assistant to scope out a restaurant or a store first before he tries to enter it to determine if it is possible to access in his electric scooter.
Lunch guests included Shira Ruderman, Executive Director of the Ruderman Family Foundation; Rebecca Tobin, Executive Director of the Rita J. & Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation; Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, President of RespectAbility; Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director of the JCC Manhattan; Ilana Ruskay-Kidd, Founder of The Shefa School; Anna Kaplan, Director of Programs for The Perlman Music Program; Jill Smith and Ali Rose, of the Genesis Prize Foundation and myself—all people dedicated to creating more inclusion of people with disabilities in the areas of Jewish communal life and in society at large–in education, employment opportunities, through advocacy work with government officials and leaders in media and entertainment industries, who too often cast non-disabled actors to portray characters with disabilities. Perlman listened intently about our efforts and agreed that there is much work that needs to be done in terms of the general public’s understanding of the needs of people with disabilities. He spoke about his desire for architects and designers especially to gain better understanding about what it’s like to actually navigate space in a wheelchair and to design not simply by codes but with a creative intention that recognizes what people who use wheelchairs need.
To honor Perlman’s many contributions to raising awareness about living with disabilities, the Genesis Prize Foundation in partnership with Jewish Funders Network has established the “Breaking Barriers” grant to fund organizations and projects that foster inclusion of people with disabilities within the Jewish community. Grant applications are being accepted through March 31st.
The Genesis Prize has been called “The Jewish Nobel” and carries a $1 million award. Approximately 80% of the award fund bestowed to Perlman will be invested in projects to foster greater integration of people with disabilities into society in both Israel and North America. The remaining 20% of the award will be invested in developing advanced training for highly talented musicians in Israel in order to provide them with an opportunity to bring their talents to the world stage.
Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer directs Jewish Learning Venture’s Whole Community Inclusion which fosters inclusion of people with disabilities through the Philadelphia Jewish community. She loves writing/editing for “The New Normal” and for WHYY’s newsworks. Her latest book The Little Gate Crasher is a memoir of her Great-Uncle Mace Bugen, a self-made millionaire and celebrity selfie-artist who was 43 inches tall and was chosen for this year’s Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month Book Selections.