Seven undergraduates across the country are serving as the first cohort of Hillel International’s Ruderman Inclusion Ambassadors. Based out of their campus Hillels, each ambassador is creating and implementing programs committed to building campus awareness and developing initiatives to encourage inclusion of students with disabilities in campus Jewish life.

An estimated 20 percent of people live with some form of a disability. As the largest Jewish campus organization, Hillel International works to develop and embrace innovative techniques to serve all Jewish students, including those on the periphery of Jewish student life. Ruderman Inclusion Ambassadors, funded as part of a $750,000 grant through the Ruderman Family Foundation, are utilizing resources and disability experts to further the foundation’s mission of advancing the inclusion of people with disabilities throughout society.

“With gratitude to the Ruderman Family Foundation, this new initiative is intended to specifically engage students with disabilities and provide opportunities to include them in Jewish life on campus,” said President and CEO of Hillel International, Eric D. Fingerhut. “Our ambassadors were selected because of their interest in inclusion and their experience working to advance student outreach. We are already seeing the impact Hillel students are having on each of their campuses, and I am looking forward to seeing the model this initiative will set for other campus programs, and for additional schools, going forward.”

Through this program, which is part of a larger partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation, Hillel International seeks to address practical barriers to participation in its student programs, as well as launch the spiritual, cultural and communal reflection and action necessary to ensure all Hillel communities can be inclusive of all students. The first cohort of Ruderman Inclusion Ambassadors began their internships during the fall semester, and are now in the midst of implementing new programs on campus. Over the next three years, Hillel International will continue to place inclusion-focused interns on college campuses, as it develops a series of professional and student trainings, and uses Hillel International’s communications channels to highlight best practices and stories about inclusion.

Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, said, “As our society continues to recognize the rights and contributions of people with disabilities, we will need our emerging leaders to guide us along the path toward full inclusion. On campuses across our country and the world, Hillel professionals and student leaders are our best insurance that inclusion will be a priority for our community. The Ruderman Family Foundation is proud to partner with Hillel in building a Jewish community in which people of all abilities are welcomed and celebrated.”

In the program’s 2016-17 pilot year, seven Ruderman Inclusion Ambassadors have been selected as part of Hillel International’s prestigious Engagement Internship program to create and implement innovative programs on each of their campuses.

The pilot cohort of ambassadors, listed by local Hillel, includes:

  • Cincinnati Hillel – Harley Schoen, of Cleveland
  • Hofstra Hillel – Tova Kline, of Plano, Texas
  • USC Hillel – Sophie Kijel, of Mission Viejo, Calif.
  • Virginia Tech Hillel – Rachel Berman, of Herndon, Va.,
  • Hillel 818 – Eden Rubin, of Los Angeles, who attends California State University Northridge
  • Hillel at University of Washington – Lily Rosencrantz, of Seattle
  • Hillel at the College of Staten Island – Aderet Averick, of Staten Island

The ambassadors are required to meet with students, as well as campus liaisons and disability professionals, one-on-one, to learn from them about how Hillel can be helpful toward fostering inclusion, and ultimately, to create two disability-inclusion initiatives over the course of the year. It’s up to each ambassador to develop programming relevant to his or her campus. The cohort meets over video chat monthly to hear from experts and discuss best practices.

For Tova Kline, a senior at Hofstra, it’s been important to educate her peers on campus about disability awareness issues. She’s created opportunities for dinner and discussion programs that raise awareness about disability inclusion issues–both on campus and in the greater community. Kline has not only wanted to educate her peers but also figure out a way to take action steps to create a more inclusive atmosphere on the Hofstra campus.

“Hofstra is a college that includes a lot of students who have disabilities like autism and learning disabilities because the schools provides great supports for students,” Kline explained. “But looking around at the dining halls, I noticed that a lot of students who have disabilities were sitting and eating by themselves.”

As an ambassador, Kline raised this issue with her peers from Hillel and students have taken the initiative to go and invite students sitting alone to sit with them in the dining hall. “It seems like an obvious thing to do,” Kline says, “but it’s really created a much more inclusive atmosphere on campus.”

The Ruderman Inclusion Ambassadors program marks the latest iteration of Hillel International’s Engagement Internship program, now celebrating its 10-year anniversary, with close to 550 interns currently on 60 campuses. The program is consistently adapted to best meet the needs of society. Since its inception in 2006, 3,682 student interns on 124 campuses have engaged 132,000 students.