Breaking Barriers: A big tent for all

The Genesis Prize Foundation’s Breaking Barriers competition winners plan to use their grants to support people with disabilities in the Jewish world.

Genesis Prize winner Itzhak Perlman (photo credit: LISA MARIE MAZZUCCO)
Genesis Prize winner Itzhak Perlman
(photo credit: LISA MARIE MAZZUCCO)
During his Genesis Prize acceptance speech last year, maestro Itzhak Perlman revealed that he grew up believing tzedaka to be “a way of life, whether one can afford it or not.” Throughout his adult life, he has never wavered from that philosophy and as the Genesis Prize laureate of 2016, Perlman demonstrated his commitment to that tenet once again by directing his $1 million award to “Breaking Barriers” – a unique initiative aimed at combining Perlman’s driving passions of philanthropy, disability advocacy and music education.
For the Genesis Prize Foundation (GPF), Breaking Barriers signifies its commitment to join the international community in supporting the most critical issues in philanthropy today.
For Perlman, the initiative allowed him to showcase a model for inclusion, as well as to contribute to the development of Jewish philanthropy in this area.
With the Breaking Barriers initiative, the GPF has not only demonstrated its support for Perlman’s desire to create a more inclusive society, it has also created support for the effort with organizations and philanthropists across the world. In North America, GPF is working closely with the Jewish Funders Network (JFN) to implement the program; in Israel, it is being facilitated by Matan, the United Way Israel organization.
The collaboration with Matan will help ensure that Israel raises the bar on how the country treats its disabled citizens. More than NIS 2 million was awarded this April to 14 Israeli Breaking Barriers projects that will bring classical art to people with disabilities.
Additional funding for the program was provided by philanthropist Roman Abramovich, who matched the Genesis Prize’s $1 million award.
Fifty-four organizations applied for Breaking Barriers grants. Each organization was required to secure matching funding to be eligible. Twenty-two organizations were awarded grants, and with their matching funds, some $3.17m. was distributed to projects serving Breaking Barriers’ goals of enriching the lives of people with disabilities and working to ensure they are more fully engaged in Jewish life.
Creating opportunities for members of the Jewish community with special needs to reach their full potential has become a relatively recent area of focus for the Jewish world. America responded first, with a strong mobilization to create more inclusive approaches to engaging those with disabilities.
Organizations that focus on this issue know that sustained effort, a knowledge base and financial resources are required to achieve results. One of those organizations with a deep understanding of the challenge is Hillel International, the largest Jewish organization on college campuses in America and a winner of the Breaking Barriers Perlman-JFN competition.
“We were very excited when we heard that Itzhak Perlman was the recipient of the prize, because we saw this as a chance to be even more inclusive,” Sheila Katz, Hillel’s vice president for social entrepreneurship told The Jerusalem Post, adding that Hillel worked in concert with the Genesis Prize Foundation two years ago when its laureate, Michael Douglas, dedicated himself to promoting the inclusion of intermarried couples and their children in Jewish life.
Of the 400,000 students Hillel serves on college campuses, the organization estimates 20% have some sort of disability. It is a population that Hillel could not afford to ignore.
“We understand the values of inclusion and the importance of making everyone feel welcome,” Katz said.
As a result, they plan to use the Breaking Barriers grant money to enhance their Ruderman Ambassadors Program, a joint initiative forged with the Ruderman Family Foundation.
Launched 18 months ago, it aims to enlist student ambassadors to engage students on campus who have mental and/or physical disabilities.
“Our aim is to ensure that all programming at Hillel is inclusive,” Katz said. “The goal is not to separate people.The goal is to make sure everything Hillel does is open to every person – including people with disabilities – who wishes to be part of the fabric of Jewish life.”
Active Hillel members are trained as ambassadors to build one-on-one relationships with disabled Jewish students who were previously unengaged, and to bring them into conversations about who they are and what their heritage means to them. To do so, they bring in specialists to assist the ambassadors in offering guidance as to how to make students with disabilities feel welcome within Judaism’s big tent.
Essentially, the goal is to adopt Hillel’s overarching philosophy of promoting Jewish life to unaffiliated students on campus, while specifically reaching out to those with disabilities.
The effort began with seven ambassadors this academic year, and with the help of Perlman’s Genesis Prize money, Hillel seeks to double that figure next year, hoping to reach more than 1,000 students with disabilities.
“I'm so glad the Genesis Prize Foundation is focusing on this topic. Everybody knows somebody with a disability and this allows us to create a more inclusive reality for all,” Katz said.
“So many Jewish organizations say they care about the future of the Jewish people and spend so much time investing in the wrong places. Meanwhile there are so many Jews with disabilities asking to be let in. In many ways, this is an amazing way to engage a whole new subset of Jews who are eager to be engaged,” she said.
Judith Creed Homes for Adult Independence, another Breaking Barriers winner, is well aware of the gains that are possible when reaching out to disabled people within the Jewish community.
“Our Jewish life is so much richer when you include everyone,” Stacy Jarett Levitan, the executive director of the Philadelphia-based organization said. The residential home for people with disabilities hopes to use its Breaking Barriers funds to reinforce its Transitions program, an initiative that offers after-school programing for disabled young adults aged 18-30 looking to become independent. From money management to cooking, the program teaches them the crucial skills they need to become independent adults.
“They want to have the same life as their peers, they just need more instruction on how to do it,” Levitan explained.
“We focus on what people can do, not can't do.”
“We are so inspired that Itzhak Perlman was going to use the Genesis Prize money to help increase inclusion of people with disabilities in the Jewish community. That has been our goal all along,” Levitan added.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, another winning organization, chose to address its special needs population on three different levels, associate chief program officer Lori Klein explained.
Specifically, they will use their grant money to promote disability inclusion on an individual, organizational and communal level. Examples of this approach include hiring community inclusion specialists, who will provide consultations to Jewish organizations on how to become more inclusive, and a joint program with Matan-United Way, which will hire educators to help children with disabilities early in their lives.
The federation also sets aside a day each February during Jewish Disabilities and Inclusion Month for a family- friendly event accessible to all, where arts and crafts, a petting zoo and face painting are just some of the attractions offered.
While many organizations are actively working on supporting those with disabilities, and more people empathize with and embrace those with disabilities, the stigma attached to the disabled still persists.
“I would say that one of the things that I'm really happy to see changing is the perception of people with disabilities moving from an object of pity to a member of the community,” Levitan, who has a brother with Down syndrome, said.
“My brother has always been my brother. He's not ‘my brother with Down syndrome.’ People need to stop looking at disabilities to define who they are and instead just focus on the person who is there.”
Hillel’s Katz laments that leadership positions are rarely, if ever, filled by someone with a disability. “I think we have a long way to go,” Katz said.
“Specifically, when we understand the landscape of leadership, you don’t see people with disabilities represented. This is a critical piece of Hillel's work.”
There may still be a long way to go until the dream of full equality and inclusion is realized, but as long as there is integration, mutual understanding and respect for anyone who may be a little different, the future is a positive one. Itzhak Perlman’s Breaking Barriers initiative has given important support to the fulfillment of that dream.