(JTA) — In Judith Heumann’s 2020 memoir, the lifelong advocate for people with disabilities describes feeling shocked upon being invited to read from the Torah at her synagogue in Berkeley, California. Not only were women permitted to carry out the sacred task, unlike in the Orthodox synagogue of her Brooklyn childhood, but the bimah, or prayer platform, had been made accessible just for her.
“Oh my God, I thought, I’ve never been asked to do an aliyah,” Heumann wrote, using the Hebrew word for the ritual. “I learned how to do it.”
The moment was just one of many when Heumann, who died Saturday at 75, charted ground that had previously been off-limits to wheelchair users like her. Since contracting polio as a toddler, Heumann broke down barriers for disabled children and educators in New York City schools, protested until federal legislation protecting people with disabilities was passed and advised multiple presidential administrations on disability issues.
A cause of death was not immediately given for Heumann, whose website announced her death on Saturday in Washington, D.C. Heumann had lived there for 30 years, since being tapped by the Clinton administration to serve as assistant secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services.
Heumann was born in 1947 to two parents who had separately fled Nazi Germany as children in the 1930s; all of her grandparents and countless other family members were murdered in the Holocaust.
She said she believed it was her parents’ experience that led them to reject doctors’ advise to have their daughter institutionalized after she contracted polio and lost the use of her legs. “They came from a country where families got separated, some children sent away, others taken from their families by the authorities and never returned — all part of a campaign of systematic dehumanization and murder,” she wrote in her memoir, “Being Heumann.” “Their daughter, disabled or not, wasn’t going anywhere.”
Instead, her parents and in particular her mother, Ilse, set about to advocate for her. When the city school system said Judith could not attend her neighborhood school, Ilse got a rabbi to agree that she could attend his yeshiva if her daughter learned Hebrew. Judith did, but the rabbi did not keep his word. Instead, Ilse lined up an array of activities for Judith, including thrice-weekly Hebrew school classes accessible only if her father carried her in her chair up a flight of stairs, until the city opened a program for children with disabilities.
There, Heumann wrote, she first encountered “disability culture” — what she described as “a culture that has learned to value the humanity in all people, without dismissing anyone for looking, thinking, believing or acting differently.” She would experience and then help craft this culture during a decade at summer camp, in a movement captured in the 2020 documentary “Crip Camp,” and then throughout a lifetime of advocacy that earned her the moniker “mother of the disability rights movement.”
One notable win came in 1970, after Heumann graduated from college with a degree in speech therapy. Told that she could not teach in New York City schools because she could not help children leave in case of fire, Heumann sued. She was represented in part by an attorney who would argue Roe v. Wade in front of the Supreme Court, and the case came before Judge Constance Baker Motley, the only woman on the NAACP legal team that argued Brown v. Board of Education. The city quickly settled and Heumann ultimately got a job at her old elementary school.
The public fight propelled Heumann into the leadership of an inchoate disability rights movement. Two years later, she participated in New York City protests in favor of federal anti-discrimination laws that President Richard Nixon ultimately signed. In 1977, she was one of dozens of disability advocates to occupy a federal building in San Francisco in a demonstration calling for enforcement mechanisms. Their advocacy led to Section 504, a federal statute that requires entities receiving government funds to show that they do not discriminate on the basis of disability.
The episode was dramatized on Comedy Central’s “Drunk History.” Heumann was played by Ali Stroker, a Jewish actress who was the first wheelchair user to perform on Broadway. Heumann was also recognized as Time Magazine’s 1977 Woman of the Year in a 2020 retrospective.
Heumann was a cofounder of the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley before returning to the East Coast and the government advisory roles. Through it all, Heumann remained involved with the Jewish communities where she lived, including by having a bat mitzvah ceremony as an adult. In Washington, she was a member of Adas Israel Congregation.
In 2016, she cited tikkun olam, the ancient rabbinical imperative to repair the world, during a 2016 White House event during Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. “The Jewish community has an obligation, I believe, to be leaders,” said Heumann, then special advisor for international disability rights in the State Department.
She also traveled as an adult to her father’s hometown in Germany, Hoffenheim, where she was taken to the site of the synagogue that the Nazis destroyed but noted that no one there spoke openly about what had happened to the local Jews.
In “Being Heumann,” she connected the experience to her own efforts to bring people with disabilities into the mainstream. “What a pervasive influence silence and avoidance have had on my life,” she wrote. “Why wasn’t I in school? Silence. Why aren’t we allowed on buses? Silence. Why can’t disabled people teach? Silence. Where are all the Jews going? Piercing silence.
“I refuse to give in to the pressure of the silence,” she concluded.
Heumann’s allies in the Jewish disability advocacy community mourned her death.
“So sad to learn of Judy Heumann’s passing,” tweeted Jay Ruderman, whose family foundation has been a leader in supporting Jewish disability inclusion. “She was one of the preeminent disability rights leaders in our country’s history and her accomplishments made our world a better place. I’ll miss you Judy and may your memory be a blessing.”
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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