L ike most family foundations, the Ruderman Family Foundation at first operated as a checkbook, giving away money to a variety of different causes. Then, about six years ago, the foundation partnered with Gateways: Access to Jewish Education and Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies to launch the Initiative for Day School Excellence, a $45 million effort that enabled Jewish children with special needs to access any of the 14 Jewish day schools in the Boston area.
Ironically, a few years after the foundation became involved in the project, Jay Ruderman’s nephew was diagnosed with autism. “For the family, that emotionally drew us closer to the issue,” says Ruderman, a lawyer and former AIPAC professional who now serves as president of the Ruderman Family Foundation.
The foundation has since emerged as a major funder in the world of special needs and disabilities within the international Jewish community. Next week in Manhattan, the foundation is hosting ADVANCE: The Ruderman Jewish Special Needs Funding Conference, the first-ever gathering within the Jewish community aimed to promote collaboration between some 100 funders, as well as a score of professionals working in the field.
“The Jewish community is very concerned about continuity and there all these different ways that philanthropists are tackling this issue, such as Birthright and the PJ Library,” Ruderman says. “The Jewish community cannot ignore children with special needs and their families. If synagogues or JCCs or day schools or trips to Israel or Jewish camps turn away a child with special needs, they’re not only turning away that child but also turning away the family … and turning them off of Judaism. You can’t automatically turn away 20 percent of the population.”
Ruderman’s goal is to form an international network of Jewish funders (many Israeli funders will attend) who will meet periodically, discuss best practices, and begin to think about how to move the issue of special needs further up on the Jewish community’s agenda.
Not content to merely impact the community of Boston, Ruderman announced last year a $2 million grant to launch Israel Unlimited, a three-year program that will develop pilot projects to help adults with special needs integrate within the Israeli communities in which they live. The grant was matched by $2 million from both the Israeli government and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which had previously conducted research on the 700,000 people with special needs living in Israel.
“What initially attracted us was the ability to have a nationwide impact,” says Ruderman, who moved to Israel from Boston in 2005 with his wife and four young children. When the grant runs out in three years, these programs will become government programs. “The $6 million investment will ultimately become worth hundreds of millions of dollars for the Israeli community,” he says.
While many conferences end with good ideas languishing on discarded flip charts, funders who plan on attending the special needs conference say that it can be a potential game-changer. “When you have a philanthropist that gives the amount he has given to disabilities, who has a big corpus and is willing to invest it, people listen,” says Nancy Kaplan Belsky, vice president of the Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation.
Belsky will be speaking about the Kaplan Foundation’s successes with CHAI Works, a Jewish Family & Children’s Service program based in Boston that provides affordable housing, skill-building, and job development and coaching for those with disabilities. “If we’re going to say that we are an inclusive community that really cares about making every Jewish individual feel valued, we need to walk the talk,” says Belsky.
Belsky and Ruderman have jointly advocated for what they call the “10 percent challenge”: that 10 percent of the workforces of Jewish agencies be comprised of individuals with disabilities. “Jay’s goal is a bold one but he’s bold,” she says. “How can we expect the broader community to hire people with disabilities if we don’t do it ourselves?”
Ruderman acknowledges the reality that special needs is “not the main focus” of the Jewish community. “It’s expensive. The range is daunting. And there are excellent services that are available in secular, public community so people don’t initially turn to the Jewish community,” he says.
However, “We can’t be a Jewish community that just focuses on upwardly mobile young Jews aren’t connected to the Jewish community. We have to focus on people with special needs who desperately desire to be part of our community.”