By Jennie Szink, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer
Ethan Bortnick is making a name for himself as a child pianist, but nine years ago his story could have read differently. At age 3, Ethan begged his parents for piano lessons but they were reluctant to give in to the preschooler. When Ethan finally started lessons, his piano teacher feared he was too shy to perform.
That quickly changed. By age 5, Ethan was playing Beethoven, Mozart, Little Richard and Elton John and composing his own music. The 12-year-old made history two years ago as the youngest musician to create and host his own concert special on PBS. He has received a Guinness World Record certificate as the Youngest Musician to Headline a Solo Concert, and has performed with some of today’s top pop stars.
On Oct. 17, Ethan will perform at the Opening Event Kick-Off of the Jewish Federation’s 2014 United Jewish Campaign. The program is sponsored by the DJCC’s Cultural Arts and Book Festival.
It’s not unusual for Ethan to use his talents to support a cause close to his heart. The desire to give back was his early inspiration to tour. When Ethan was 5, his brother, Mason, was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. This is a rare congenital heart defect in which the left ventricle of the heart is underdeveloped. The Bortnick family spent much time at Miami Children’s Hospital.
“I saw a lot of people in there who needed help,” Ethan said, “and I wanted to help them all.”
It’s a large feat, but Ethan has helped raise millions of dollars for Miami Children’s Hospital and other nonprofits such as the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, Boys & Girls Club and Starkey Hearing Foundation.
Despite the sometimes serious nature of his charity work, Ethan’s shows are anything but. He likes to interact with the crowd, whether it’s during a question and answer portion or taking a good-humored jab at an audience member. “Sometimes if I notice someone has arrived late, I’ll call out and ask for their name then create a song about them on the spot,” Ethan said.
He’s attracted attention from Tonight Show host Jay Leno and Oprah Winfrey, who called him one of the “all-time smartest and most talented kids.” The recognition is fun for Ethan, but it’s nothing that’s gone to his head. “They’re all extremely nice and very talented, but they’re people just like us,” he said.
Keeping his 12-year-old son grounded is high on the list for father and manager Gene Bortnick.
Gene emigrated from Ukraine when he was 6 years old; he says he and his family were able to succeed in America thanks in part to local Jewish organizations. Gene makes sure Ethan connects to his roots, sending him to a Jewish day school when he’s home in Florida.
Jewish elements come through in Ethan’s songs Believe in Yourself and We’re All Family, which he co-wrote for his direct-to-DVD film Anything Is Possible, to be released Sept. 24. Ethan scored the background music for the movie and plays the main character, an orphan who is discovered to be a talented pianist.
His second PBS special, Ethan Bortnick Live in Concert, The Power of Music, will air on PBS stations between Nov. 28 and Dec. 12.
Although he’s a confident jokester on the stage now, that isn’t all he knows how to be. At home, Gene said, he’s a kid just like his peers. This virtuoso doesn’t always make his bed and sometimes has to say no to a gig in order to make it to a friend’s birthday party.
Event co-chairs are Pamela Schwartz and Marci Vandersluis. Judy Abromowitz is chair of the United Jewish Campaign and Helene Gordon is chair of the Cultural Arts and Book Festival.
Attendees will be asked to make their pledges to the Jewish Federation’s 2014 United Jewish Campaign, which helps meet the needs of Jews in Dayton, Israel, and worldwide.
Ethan Bortnick will perform at the Opening Event Kick-Off of the Jewish Federation’s 2014 United Jewish Campaign in conjunction with the DJCC’s Cultural Arts & Book Festival on Thursday, Oct. 17 at 7 p.m. at the Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park N. Tickets are $20 for adults, $5 18 and under. R.S.V.P. to Alisa Thomas at 853-0372 or go to www.jewishdayton.org.