Athlete and filmmaker Pascale Bercovitch made a somewhat unusual entrance when she delivered her speech at last week’s ADVANCE conference, a gathering for Jewish philanthropists interested in disability programs and services.
Because she has no legs, Bercovitch, 45, wheeled herself to the front of the room, in an event space in Soho. But because her arms and abdominal muscles are stronger than those of most people who do have legs, from her wheelchair she easily hoisted herself onto a tall chair, where she wriggled a few times to settle herself comfortably, grinning at her audience the entire time.
“You might think I’ve forgotten something,” she said slyly, in English accented with a beguiling mix of Israel and France, where she was born in a suburb of Paris. “Where are my legs? Did I leave them at home?”
Bercovitch, didn’t “forget” her legs — she lost them altogether when she was 17, when they were run over by a train she was trying to catch — but she doesn’t miss them much anymore.
Instead, she’s decided to view that accident as an “opportunity.” It was grisly. She lay on the tracks for about 45 minutes and was rescued only a few minutes before the next train came through. Then, she recounted, she awoke to find her parents and her sister looking at her with pity and horror.
She nixed a plan to put her in a facility for the disabled that was described, she remembered with scorn undimmed by the years, as a place where she could do ceramics. The girl who earlier in her teens had bested her parents and teachers’ expectations to become a gymnastics champion and who dreamed of making aliyah and serving in the Israel Defense Forces was still determined to do so.
Six months later, she did, volunteering on army bases for a year and a half and “enjoying every moment,” she said.
After that, she became a journalist, starting in radio and moving on to freelance as a television producer and reporter for foreign outlets. She turned an article she wrote on a deaf Bedouin boy who communicates with dolphins into a book, “The Dolphin’s Boy.” She learned to swim and created “Three Hundredths of a Second,” a documentary about the Israeli Paralympic swim team.
As in her youth, athletics are a big part of her life: Bercovitch rows, and represented Israel in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics; she rides and she rock climbs, which is how she met her partner, Oz Skop, the coach of Israel’s climbing team.
She also has two daughters, the younger one with Skop.
“I am who I decided to become,” Bercovitch told the ADVANCE crowd several times, in a kind of mantra.
These days, her big sport is hand cycling. She told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency this week that she hopes to compete in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro games.
Organized and sponsored by the Ruderman Family Foundation in partnership with several other organizations, the conference is in its third year and is meant to offer a day of learning, networking and inspiration for Jewish funders.
This year’s conference featured sessions on Jewish disability needs for various age groups and discussions of how to make inclusion of people with disabilities a piece of all grant-making efforts.