The Musical Showcase to Celebrate Diversity, Ability and Inclusion Featuring the Awesome Talent of NYC Teens and Young Adults was set to start at 12:30 pm at Manhattan’s Cutting Room. Yet, by noon, the funky musical venue was already buzzing with excitement. A large group of students from such New York schools as Blessed Sacrament, Horace Mann and Avenues were practicing on stage for their opening number, “Tequila.” Emily Negron, 15, of the Bronx, was getting in some last minute practicing of “All You Need is Love” at the rear of the venue with fellow Ideal School students, Vita Krasny and Laura Lyle. “Turn that way when you feel me put my hand on your shoulder,” Negron instructed her fellow performers.
When the concert began, a performer with a visible disability informed the crowd that she may be singing off pitch. The crowd clapped and went wild. A brother and sister team, with the brother performing two songs from his walker, brought the house down.
Logan Riman of Edward R Murrow School sat at a piano and flawlessly played Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” as a photo of Riman with The Piano Man appeared on the screen.
Other acts in the eclectic afternoon were electric, including Daniel Becker of the Rebecca School playing the Violent Femmes “Blister in the Sun” and the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR,” accompanied by drums and guitar.
Angelica Mroczek, Miss Staten Island Outstanding Teen 2020, a student at Curtis High School and Myles Roven, of the Packer Collegiate Institute, welcomed the crowd to the second annual AKIM event and thanked its sponsor, the Building Bridges Conference. AKIM is the National Organization for People with Intellectual Disabilities in Israel—founded in 1951. Mroczek’s twin sister Tatiana also performed in the concert.
The pair introduced Ami Ayalon, Chair of AKIM Israel and former Chief of the Israeli Navy and Former Head of Israel’s Secret Service. Ayalon, who came from Israel to address the crowd, was emotional and passionate as he told the story of his niece, Zahara, who, with disabilities and great charm, taught his own children “how to respect the other” and in the process, they “became better people.” Ayalon offered his remarks after the first two songs and playfully said, “I am glad my wife is not here. It is the first time in 50 years she did not come with me. She would be crying in the last five minutes.” Ayalon explained that AKIM is responsible for 35,000 people with disabilities in Israel, and their 150,000 family members and has thousands of volunteers.
AKIM’s 65 national centers are in 85 towns throughout Israel in both Jewish and Arab sectors. “We advocate for all people with special needs in Israel—Jew and Arab, Christian, Muslim and Hindu, religious and not religious. AKIM is an island of sanity in a society of tribes. Our vision is our mission statement—to create a better Israeli society.” Ayalon was particularly excited about a concert featuring such a diverse group of performers. “We are humans—and music connects us!”
Robert Ukrainsky, a student at Avenues School and a saxophone player who performed with numerous groups throughout the concert, has been involved with AKIM for many years. “I learned about AKIM when I was looking for a Bar Mitzvah project. When I heard about a new program being set between AKIM and Tel Aviv University Dental Center that will allow your adults with intellectual disabilities be trained and get jobs, I got fascinated. The idea of giving someone an opportunity to live independently and instilling social equality resonated with me,” he said. Ukrainsky’s mother, Rada Sumareva, is a periodontist implant surgeon, AKIM board member and one of the organizers of the concert. Ukrainsky visited the program in Israel last summer and met with the four students in the first cohort of the program.
Ukrainsky was delighted to have the opportunity to participate in the concert. “I feel fortunate to be a part of the inclusion concert as we all can learn about each other’s differences and bring the best of our abilities to make music together. We are all part of the same team, share our interest in music, and truly enjoy new friendships and stage collaborations. I made new friends through this concert and also was able to reconnect with my old friends who joined the team this year.”
His mother, Rada, added, “The concert was especially meaningful for Robert as it not only enabled him to collaborate with all these incredible musicians different in various ways and help AKIM, but also it was a stage debut of his own student who is now 8 and who started saxophone lessons with Robert when he was 6. It warmed my heart that his first question after the show yesterday was not about his performance, it was about his student’s performance!”
At this year’s event, performers, family members and guests didn’t want to leave—even when they concert officially ended. They stayed for an informal jam session and drum circle. Ideal student Emily Negron enjoyed performing with her two friends from the Ideal School and summed it up best and will hopefully be back for next year’s 3rd annual event. “It is an amazing opportunity. I sing daily. I love to participate with others. I love it all!”
Howard Blas is the director of the National Ramah Tikvah Network. Howard also serves as a teacher of Jewish studies and bar/bat mitzvah preparation to students with a range of disabilities and “special circumstances.” He holds masters’ degrees in both social work (Columbia University) and special education (Bank Street College of Education). Howard received the S’fatai Tiftakh Award from Boston Hebrew College’s Center for Jewish Special Education in 2012 and the 2013 Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education. He writes regularly for many Jewish publications.