Meet the women lighting the Independence Day torches: Paralympic athlete Pascale Bercovitch

Meet the faces behind the flames: After losing both her legs in a train accident in her native France, against all odds, the 46-year-old became a sporting hero.

PASCALE BERCOVITCH climbs at her husband’s gym in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: ROMY NETIV)
PASCALE BERCOVITCH climbs at her husband’s gym in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: ROMY NETIV)
Pascale Bercovitch’s rose-tinted glasses are palpable, even from the other end of a phone line.
The 46-year-old Paralympic athlete says she was surprised to be picked as one of the 14 women chosen to light the torches at the Independence Day ceremony this year – since there are so many other good candidates for the task, and she feels she is young to be given the honor. She reasons that perhaps she was chosen because she represents many different faces – that of a mother, an athlete, a journalist, a wife, a film-maker, a writer and a motivational speaker.
“And it’s great that someone with a disability has been chosen as a representative for the whole country,” she tells The Jerusalem Post in endearing French-accented English.
Bercovitch, who was a gymnast as a child, lost both her legs after she slipped and was pulled under a train in her native France, at the age of 17.
But just six months after having her legs amputated, her fighting spirit and passion for Israel led the newly wheelchair-bound Bercovitch to the IDF, where she served as a volunteer.
“From the age of 15, I fell in love with the idea of a very small country with a very big vision... a country trying to be more clever, more equal and green than any other country.”
She recalls that the first time she tried to find Israel on an atlas she failed because of its tiny size, so she asked her parents to help her, and even with their help it took a while. She recounts that she was motivated by the feeling that she could make a change in a young, evolving country, whereas in France she didn’t feel she could make a difference because everything is “old and stuck.”
So in July 1985, she packed her bags and headed straight to the IDF. Since she didn’t speak the language and was physically weak, she started off in an office-based position, later becoming an instructor for Sar-El groups who come from abroad to volunteer in the army. She herself had volunteered for a month and a half as a teenager.
She felt empowered by this role in the army, after being just “a little one” a year earlier.
“It was a great feeling for me to be the go-between between the army and the groups, and I began to give speeches to soldiers and olim [immigrants] about my life and what I had learned.”
The army constituted a meaningful learning curve for Bercovitch in several ways: “There was a lot of warmth, a lot of learning. I learned Hebrew, how to deal with my new body, how to deal with a wheelchair, to understand what this country is about, to eat humous, to listen to oriental music. It was an enriching place – it gave me status and structure.”
Bercovitch was the first person in a wheelchair to volunteer for the IDF, and at that time it was far from wheelchair friendly.
“It was full of stairs and wasn’t accessible at all... but people helped me, and they put ramps everywhere. They improvised. But it was far from meeting the bar.”
She laughs good-naturedly, saying that in that respect the situation was a “nightmare,” incomparable to present-day conditions.
Indeed, she is part of a non-profit organization called Access Israel, which she tells me is “changing the face of the country” with respect to accessibility and quality of life for the disabled.
Bercovitch went on to make a profession out of speaking to hi-tech board members, companies, societies and institutions.
Now, her dream is to establish a school for youth and adults, teaching people how to live better on a day-to-day basis – how to connect their body, soul and mind and for them to work together in harmony.
It was during her time in the army that she discovered her passion for swimming, and she’s overflowing with praise for swimming coach Margalit Zonenfeld. She says she accompanied her through her career in the aquatic sport, and pushed her to the national team. Through swimming, Bercovitch “came back to herself,” following the trauma of her life-changing accident.
“I felt like I wasn’t disabled anymore – when you’re in water, there’s no difference.”
Swimming was what brought her back to sports, but the ambitious Bercovitch did not stop there, later taking on rowing, wall climbing, mountain climbing, surfing and wheelchair dancing as well. Her passion for extreme sports led her to a passion of a different kind : her husband Oz Skop, whom she met on the climbing wall. Skop is the coach for the national climbing team, so when Berkovitch decided to fulfill her dream of learning to climb, she was directed to him for guidance. Berkovitch is No. 4 in the world in paraclimbing, but still strives to improve her ranking.
At the ripe age of 40, Bercovitch began her Olympic career in rowing.
“People told me I was crazy, that it’s not for 40-year-olds, but I proved that when you really want something, nothing can stop you . But I did it because of love, not to prove anything. I love challenges, and to do new things, better than the day before.
It’s part of my fuel, my soul.”
She later added handcycling into the mix, coming in fifth at the London Games in 2012, and she hopes to compete in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
She says everyone is strong, but not everyone knows it; and without checking your own strength, you can never know your true capabilities. She admits that the results aren’t always good, poking fun at her cooking. But among her repertoire of achievements, Bercovitch says her two daughters, Eden and Mika, are the biggest of them all, describing them as her two gold medals.
“I’m teaching them that money and diplomas don’t really matter; what’s important is what you have in your heart, and they have to discover their own way, without being worried about the future.”
As Bercovitch gets ready to light a torch on Independence Day, she shares words of wisdom that could light up society if taken on board.
“We all have bad periods, and there are surprises in life that aren’t always nice – but we have many tipot shel mazal [‘drops of luck’] around us all time, and most of the time we don’t see them because we are too busy and thinking negatively.”
She says that Israelis should be nicer to one another, and must accept the differences between them, be they religious, non-religious, right-wing, left-wing, Jewish, Druse or Arab.
“We are all Israeli and we have to live together with our differences.”
“When you think positively and try to find what can be good, loving and caring, you can always find it, in every situation,” she asserts. “My eldest daughter says I see everything in pink, and my sponsor gave me pink sunglasses, so now I really do.”