When 11-year-old Nahar Eliaz from the Perlman Music Program deftly played one of Sebastian Bach’s compositions on her cello at the Prime Minister’s Office on Sunday, she was not only honoring violinist Itzhak Perlman’s legacy, but legacy of the Jewish people as well.

“The work of Itzhak Perlman and the Genesis Prize gives hope for the next generation of activists and artists and spotlights the importance of universal Jewish values,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the ceremony, which honored the 17 winners of Breaking Barriers, a competition for organizations that promote the inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of Jewish communal life.

The competition is a part of the Breaking Barriers initiative, funded by the prize money awarded to Genesis Prize laureate Perlman and supported by Matan – United Way Israel and the Jewish Funders Network. Perlman, who has used an electric scooter for decades since being diagnosed with Polio at age four, is a staunch advocate for promoting the rights of people with disabilities.

“People with disabilities are citizens who deserve equal rights,” Perlman said at Sunday’s ceremony. “If we fight for their rights, we can expand their opportunities and we will give them the tools to contribute to society – this is the Israel we all want to see for ourselves and our children.”

The array of winners were mostly from the musical world, with organizations like the Vertigo Dance Association, the Orna Porat theater and the Jerusalem Conservatory Hassadna among the group of honorees.

This is keeping with Perlman’s two passions: inclusiveness for all and a love of music.

Matan – United Way Israel will help distribute the prize money (totaling NIS 3.2 million) to the various organizations and, along with Perlman and the Genesis Prize Foundation, helped select the winners after over 70 applications were received.

Ahuva Yanai, CEO of Matan – United Way Israel, said, “I’m grateful to the Genesis Prize and maestro Itzhak Perlman for entrusting that we will stay true to the vision of selecting organizations that connect both advocating for disabilities and the classical arts. At Matan, we feel we have a special responsibility to help organizations create change for the advancement of Israeli society as a whole and especially for those with special needs.”

Sana Britavsky, deputy CEO of the Genesis Prize Foundation, agreed, saying, “The uniqueness of Itzhak Perlman’s initiative is that the selected projects aim to raise the standards of cultural content provided to the disabled in Israel as high as possible.

These are courageous initiatives that aspire to use art as a tool to expose the full spiritual potential of those with disabilities – for their benefit and for the benefit of all of Israeli society.

“Encouraging excellence and repairing the world are integral parts of the vision of the Genesis Prize,” she added.

Genesis Prize committee chairman and Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky joked that he is often asked by young people how identifying with their Jewish roots will help them in the long run. As an answer, he points to former Genesis Prize laureates – former New York mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg, Academy Award winner Michael Douglas and renowned violinist Perlman – who were able to combine both a love of who they are as Jews with robust careers.

“Thank you to Itzhak Perlman for giving all these Israeli organizations a chance to let their participants connect to the rest of society. His leadership strengthens the Genesis Prize’s message to show that connecting with your Jewish roots is more relevant than ever,” Sharanksy said.

Steve Linde contributed to this report.

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