Jay Ruderman, 46, is the president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, an advocate for the fuller inclusion of people with disabilities in both the American Jewish community and in Israel, and a funder of disability services, among other interests.
Among the foundation’s signature programs: the annual Advance Conference for philanthropists interested in special-needs funding; Gateways, which helps students with disabilities receive a Jewish education in the Boston area, and the Israel Unlimited Partnership, a disabilities initiative that earlier this month received $12.5 million in new funds from Ruderman, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Israeli government. Ruderman, who was raised in Massachusetts, spoke to The Jewish Week by phone from Israel, where he lives with his wife and four children. This is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Q: What’s the goal of the Israel Unlimited Partnership?
A: This whole partnership — which is truly a partnership with the Joint and the Israeli government — is about integrating people with disabilities into the community. It’s important because there’s a lot that goes on in the disability world that is not inclusive. There’s segregated housing. There’s separate schooling. And that’s not the way to move forward as a society. The way to move forward is to help people with disabilities integrate into society, because it’s their civil right to enjoy every aspect of society just like every other person.
How inclusive are American Jews of people with disabilities?
Unfortunately, I think our community tends to be too concerned with self-preservation. It’s legitimate, as a small minority we should be concerned about self-preservation. But we often look at that as running after the “best and the brightest” in our society and excluding people who are different, people with disabilities, other people in need. And I don’t think that makes us a very attractive community.
How do Israeli and American Jewish attitudes toward disability compare?
The percentage of people with disabilities is about the same everywhere; between 18 percent and 20 percent of the country or the community has some form of disability. It makes it the largest minority population, but it’s one that’s often invisible. I would venture to say attitudes are probably similar. In Israel, with the ultra-Orthodox population and the Arab population, there’s a pattern of hiding away people with disabilities. And in the American Jewish community I just think we’re so focused on being upwardly mobile, on education, on trying to get into the best schools and have the best careers that we sometimes don’t realize that it’s an obligation for us as Jews to care for another.
After a day-long seminar on the inclusion of people with disabilities at the recent General Assembly, Jerry Silverman, the chief executive of the federation system’s national umbrella group, said he was very moved by the experience. Will anything come of it?
I’ve been talking to Jerry for a long time about this. We’ve been talking about the foundation doing a challenge to federations around the United States: we would match the cost of bringing a person with disabilities in as an intern. We’ve done that in Boston. It changes attitudes. We’re willing to do our part, but we need the right partners, and federations are the central authority for the Jewish people. [The internships] could look like whatever the local community wanted them to look like. If they needed someone in the mailroom; if they needed a receptionist … there’s a wide range of disabilities and people with disabilities have a wide range of abilities, so the [job description] would depend on the local community.
What are the plans for the next Advance Conference?
It will be May 8 in New York City … it’s a gathering of philanthropists to talk about best practices and inclusion. This year, we’re going to try to focus on bringing in funders who are not yet focused on these issues and help them focus on inclusion. We don’t want to change people’s agenda. We don’t want to talk to someone who supports trips to Israel and say, “Work with people with disabilities.” No. We’re saying take what you’re funding, and include this population so they can also benefit from what you’re doing.