Making a Splash on Behalf of Israelis With Disabilities


By Masha Leon

Published November 07, 2003, issue of November 07, 2003.
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At the October 26 Friends of AKIM USA dinner at the Plaza, black-tied, gowned and bejeweled Hamptons, Palm Beach and Friars Club boosters mingled to honor “Man of the Year” Daniel Rattiner, publisher and president of Dan’s Papers, Inc.

AKIM is the Hebrew acronym for the Association for the Habilitation of the Mentally Handicapped in Israel. Founded in 1951, the organization provides services and schooling to 30,000 mentally handicapped infants, children, teenagers, adults and senior citizens. Last June, 32 AKIM athletes joined teams from 150 countries to compete at the Special Olympics in Dublin.

I was teary eyed watching film clips of the AKIM team entering the arena to the cheers of 80,000 onlookers, especially seeing 16-year-old Elinor Linik — the Down’s syndrome-challenged 100-meter breast-stroke champion — lift herself out of the pool unaware that she had won the gold medal. It was one of 21 medals won by the team.

Keynote speaker and former Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert, alluding to a recent terrorist bombing in Baghdad, suggested, “Maybe there will be a greater understanding for the difficulty in Israel.” Olmert, who is now Israel’s deputy prime minister and minister of industry, trade and labor, added: “For Americans this attack takes time to get used to…. For us Israelis it is part of our daily experience.”

Smiling, Olmert concluded: “There was not a single room available in Jerusalem for Sukkot…. There were guests from every corner of the world… in Haifa… in Tel Aviv.”

AKIM Israel’s director general, Ram Marshall; AKIM USA’s vice president Terri Baird, and its national chairman, Phil Baird, all stressed the organization’s need for support during Israel’s current economic crunch.

* * *

During October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month a new entry found its way into the roster of cancer fundraisers. October 21 saw the launch of “The Garland Appeal Gala and Auction Celebrating the Life of Linda McCartney” at Christie’s. At the request of Sir Paul McCartney and his family, it was noted: “No funds raised by the charity are to be used to support research [involving] animal experimentation.” Chaired by Larry Herbert, co-chaired by Michele Herbert and with committee member Sharon Bush on board, the auction’s maiden voyage was a success. Offerings included a photograph of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, a Peter Max painting and Sting’s [autographed] guitar.

In a departure from the traditional auction format, Marty Richards, producer of the Oscar-winning movie “Chicago,” asked that guests pool together bids as small as $100 for the “Comedy Cures Foundation.” The bids went completely toward the foundation; for a $5,000 bid, “Comedy Cures’’ founder Saranne Rothberg, a New York City comic (and breast cancer survivor), would visit a cancer patient for a one-hour personalized therapeutic humor program, with family — and staff — invited.

Also at the event was the author of “Nikki Haskell’s Star Diet” (Kensington Books).

“I am one of the most famous Jewish women entrepreneurs” Haskell said.

“I’m the diet diva,” she told me during the champagne reception. “I make killer matzo balls and world-class chicken soup…. And I will match my ‘black belt’ brisket against anybody’s brisket…. I’ve had Passover dinners for the likes of Joan Collins, Red Buttons, Suzanne Pleshette — and I always serve brisket.”

* * *

From brisket to borscht: The “Russia Engages the World, 1453-1825” exhibit at the New York Public Library is a feast for eye and intellect. Amid the dazzling treasures and historical memorabilia, including a racy full-color miniature montage of Catherine the Great and Prince Grigori Potemkin (1739-1791) in flagrante delicto, I found a few intriguing Jewish references: “A Discourse Concerning the Just Causes Which His Tsarist Majesty Peter the First Had for the Beginning of the War Against the Swedish King Charles XVII in the year 1700,” described as “an apology by Baron Peter Pavlovich Shafirov (1669-1739) whose father converted to Orthodoxy from Judaism…. [Shafirov’s] private library, one of the greatest at the time in Russia in 1723, became the core of [Russia’s] library of the Academy of Sciences.”

There’s also a 19th-century etching of a Jewish wedding under a chupah in the Crimea “attended by Russians in Europeans dress” and, incongruously, a copy of “Pan Tadeusz,” a historical epic by Poland’s great poet and patriot Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855) whose mother is believed to have been of Jewish ancestry.

I checked with Marek Web, senior archivist at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, who posited, “She may have been descended from the Frankists.” The Frankists were named after Jacob Frank (ne Jankiev Lebowitz (1726-1791), who, posing as the messiah, sparked mass conversions to Christianity. How odd to find a book that champions Poland’s desire for independence in which a sympathetic Jewish character, Yankel, a fiddler, defiantly plays Poland’s national anthem “Poland Is Not Yet Lost” in an exhibit that showcases imperial Russia, Poland’s then conqueror.

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