All of us have “special needs” — to use that kind euphemism for the most unkind physical, mental or cognitive disabilities. Most of us simply don’t know it yet.
Alexis Kashar, who is deaf and president of the Jewish Deaf Resource Center, and a civil rights lawyer on behalf of the physically and learning disabled, recalled a litigation in which the opposing lawyer discovered that his own newly born son was deaf, only to seek advice from Kashar’s firm about how best to educate him.
Marlee Matlin, an Academy Award-winner who has been deaf since infancy, told of meeting Henry Winkler when she was a child, later learning that Winkler was dismissed when he was a child for being “slow,” and a “dumb dog,” before his dyslexia was properly diagnosed.
At their first meeting, Matlin’s mother asked Winkler not to encourage her daughter’s acting hopes too much since disappointment was inevitable, she thought, for a deaf actress. Winkler nodded politely to the well-meaning Mrs. Matlin.
And then “Henry turned around, knelt down, looked me straight in the eye, and said in his coolest, most Fonzie-like voice, ‘Sweetheart, you can be whatever you want to be. … Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.’”
Kashar and Matlin were just some of the advocates for those with other physical and learning disabilities, among some 175 people, most of whom were philanthropists, at Advance, the Ruderman Jewish Special Needs Funding Conference, held Dec. 6 at the Baruch College Conference Center in Manhattan. The conference was open to funders who give at least $10,000 in charity annually, and full-time professionals in the field.
There was a lot of money in the room.
“Billions,” said Jay Ruderman, quietly.
Ruderman, 45, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, said he first got involved with special needs out of his sense of “fairness.” This is “a justice issue, a Jewish issue,” to facilitate opportunity and inclusion, he said.
But “it was a bit ironic,” said Ruderman, that after funding “Peerless Excellence,” a $45 million initiative to help Jewish day schools in Boston, “we learnt that my nephew was diagnosed with autism.”
“All of us have some form of disability,” said Ruderman, “and all of us will be disabled, at some point in our lives. My father,” Morton Ruderman, co-founder of Meditech, a health care technology firm, “was a healthy guy but towards the end of his life he became very disabled, he couldn’t get around, needed oxygen, a wheelchair, it sensitized us to the issue. We all have our challenges.”
He also announced a new $200,000 Ruderman Prize in Disability, to recognize excellence and innovation in “unique Jewish programs,” as well as advocacy and support for Jews with special needs. (More information is available at the foundation’s website, www.rudermanfoundation.org).
The conference, created in partnership with the Jewish Funders Network, Jewish Federations of North America, Combined Jewish Philanthropies and Joint Distribution Committee, was guided, said Ruderman, by the Jewish principle that all of us, disabled or not yet, are created betzelem Elokim, in the image of God, and eilu v’eilu, which Ruderman translated as “inclusion.”
Synagogues and Jewish schools, said Ruderman, are simply not inclusive enough. The burden is not shared enough. “The Jewish community tends to run after the best and the brightest, saying we have to look for our future Jewish leaders. At the same time, they leave Jews with special needs on the side,” leaving too many with “a very lonely existence,” all the more as the disabled person enters adulthood.
“Many are cut off from the community. The figure that I’ve heard on unemployment in the disabled community is almost 50 percent. Shame on us if we’re not making enough of an effort to include people with disability.”
Ruderman estimates that roughly 20 percent of the Jewish population has some diagnosed disability, though there have been no formal surveys.
This year’s conference was a follow-up to the original conference in 2010, which led to the creation of the Disability Peer Network, a group of 16 funders. Ruderman was encouraged by the fact that this year’s conference had greater participation than last year’s, and the speakers were more “high profile,” with Matlin and Tim Shriver of the Special Olympics.
Susan Stern, national campaign chair of Jewish Federations of North America, said at a plenary, “We’re here because we need to move this to the top of the Jewish agenda.”
Felicia Herman, executive director of the Natan Fund, a collaborative of young philanthropists that has awarded around $7 million to over 100 startups and emerging organizations since 2003, told the conference that “the key to bringing the disability conversation to the forefront of the communal conversation is to integrate it into all of [the] other conversations,” that there “is no Jewish communal conversation that shouldn’t, in some way, include the conversation about disabilities.”
Barry Shrage, president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, said, “A lot of federations do want to be a part of it, they actually do want to make a difference in this area … But they’re not going to do it without people in this room putting pressure on ‘em.”
He added, “There is, in my view, enough money around to change the future of Jewish education, change the future [regarding] disability, and set the stage for a Jewish community that actually makes room at the table for everybody, so that its worthy of being called a Jewish community.”
Of course, the Jewish community hasn’t always had a history of inclusion. Kashar, of the Jewish Deaf Resource Center, praised the “sacred work” of the conference because she still remembered that even when she gained greater access within her secular career, “every time I wanted to do something Jewish with my family, I was made to feel like a beggar.” Estrangement from the Jewish community is often felt not only by the disabled but by their families, who are alienated by their struggles as advocates and witnesses to their loved one’s lack of inclusion.
“Now that I am involved in Jewish communal life,” said Kashar, “I am responsible for bringing back my hearing-sister,” who herself felt rejected by the Jewish community.
Tom Fields-Meyer, a veteran journalist and author of “Following Ezra,” a father’s memoir of what he learned from raising his autistic son, mentioned at the closing plenary that his son Ezra, at his bar mitzvah, wanted to speak about what it was like to have autism.
The boy, said the father, told the congregation that his autism brought out two specific traits: he repeated himself a lot and remembered things really well.
“And then,” said the father, “Ezra told the congregation something quite profound. He said, ‘Sometimes I think all Jewish people have autism. We repeat things all the time, and we have a very good memory. We sing the same songs, over and over — Adon Olam, Sholom Aleichem … And we have holidays like Pesach and Purim, where we remember things that happened thousands of years ago. We all have autism.’”
Fields-Meyer asked the conference not to think that helping the disabled is about helping someone else. He asked that they remember what Ezra said on that bar mitzvah morning, “that all Jewish people have autism.
“And all Jewish people have special needs.”