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.
What is the worst situation you have encountered on your travels?
Comparing the inner rings of hell can be very hard. In Kosovo, we visited a psychiatric hospital called Štimlje. Little kids were living among adults — they had all been abused by the adults in the facility. One of the impacts of attachment disorder is that children who do not grow up with a mother or father can’t distinguish between who is and who is not a parent. They’ll throw their arms around you and say, “Mommy,” “Daddy,” and they’ll cling to you and not want you to leave.
In this particular case I remember a little kid grabbed me, started calling me “Daddy.” We left the facility, we’re getting into the van to leave and this kid found a way to slip out the door and ran into the van and the staff literally opened it up and ripped the kid away and the kid was screaming, “Daddy, Daddy.” A story like that haunts me. I have my own 11-year-old daughter and ever since I had my own daughter it’s been very, very hard to visit kids’ facilities.
What can the average person do to help the situation?
Whenever they give money, they should be careful and hold their own charities and grantees accountable. Make sure they’re asking hard questions as to where that money is going. Don’t support orphanages, don’t support segregation. Support families. Make sure kids have the right to be with their family.
How will the Bronfman Prize increase your organization’s profile?
The most important thing that it’s done is brought tremendous publicity to this issue. I never really brought my personal and professional life into such close connection. The idea that this would be an issue that would speak specifically to the Jewish people, that I need to reach out to that kind of base, is something that never really occurred to me.
To get support from the Jewish community like this has meant so much to me personally and is incredibly important for our organization. Having that backing is going to make all the difference.