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.