Eric Rosenthal Stands Up for Those Who Cannot

Disabled Rights Advocate Wins $100K Bronfman Prize


By Seth Berkman

Published July 09, 2013, issue of July 12, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Eric Rosenthal originally planned to become a mental health professional. But in 1992, he took a trip to Mexico City and visited a local psychiatric facility. There, a barbed wire fence bordered an area where he saw hundreds of naked patients — mostly disabled children — sitting, covered in their own urine and feces, occasionally fighting for food left on a tray.

From that point forward, Rosenthal, 49, knew that his calling was to stop the abuse of children with disabilities. He founded Disability Rights International to help get children out of orphanages and provide parents with the tools to raise them at home. Today it is still a small organization, with only nine employees in Washington, Mexico and Serbia. But its work has had a significant impact, winning praise from the United Nations and President Obama. In June, Rosenthal was named the 2013 recipient of the Charles Bronfman Prize, which recognizes the work of Jewish humanitarians under 50 and carries a $100,000 award.

Rosenthal spoke with the Forward’s Seth Berkman about how his Jewish background influences his work, and how the prize will help his cause.

Seth Berkman: You just returned from Ukraine, where your family is from. Why is Ukraine ground zero to confront disability rights?

Eric Rosenthal: Russia and Ukraine together may have half a million children in institutions. I had made a promise to my grandmother that I was going to go back and remember the [family members] who had been left behind [during the pogroms against Jews]. While I was there I saw another group of people who had been excluded from their society who had been given up on.

These kids are alive and they’re feeding them, but they’ve been essentially left to die as well. They’re literally lined up in rows staring at the wall. Some were rocking on the floor curled up in balls. They’re not being treated with humanity.

Is it hard sometimes to convince people to emotionally invest in your cause?

It is a challenge. In part, it’s very far away from people’s immediate experiences. When you see a picture of someone locked up in one of these horrendous facilities it’s easy to believe that the conditions are a product of their disability, that those people have no hope.

Can you talk about growing up in Africa?

My father worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development. I lived in a few different countries — Tunisia, Ivory Coast, Niger.

I remember as a little kid we visited a little island called Djerba, in Tunisia. There was an impoverished little Jewish community with one of the oldest synagogues in the world. I was maybe six years old and they turn to me — they found out we were Jewish — they put a machzor in front of me and said, “Here, read.” And I had no idea how to. They were shocked, so they immediately started piling on me, started berating my mother and father for giving me such a bad Jewish education. “You gotta teach him to read Hebrew,” they said. They cared so much about their traditions that they would give us these books.

I realized that Judaism is not just about the people I knew back in Washington, D.C., it is about a world population that is very different. Knowing that wherever I go we are one people, that we have an incredible amount in common even if we can’t speak the language, even if our cultures are tremendously different, it gives me very much of an internationalist outlook on life.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.