Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the President of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization working to empower people with disabilities to achieve the American dream. She works regularly with disability organizations, national, state and local policy leaders, workforce development professionals, media, employers, philanthropists, celebrities and faith-based organizations in order to expand opportunities for people with disabilities. Mizrahi has led numerous national polls and brought significant visibility to the issues of America’s 56 million citizens with disabilities. She is the co-author of a major toolkit on best practices on employment for people with disabilities and frequently hosts webinars on this topic. Mizrahi has published dozens of op-eds and publications on disability issues, including in USA Today, Huffington Post, The Hill and other publications. Dyslexic herself, she also knows what it means to parent a child with multiple disabilities. Reach her at JenniferM@RespectAbilityUSA.org.
Last week I observed a first-of-its kind gathering – a five-day intensive professional training for American Jewish leaders on inclusion of people with disabilities. The forum took place in a kosher retreat center outside of Baltimore, and people had came from many cities to learn a special curriculum that was designed by inclusion experts Shelly Christensen and Prof. Steve Eidelman.
Most of the participants were between 30-50 years in age and were eager to learn and share experiences. Some of them feel they have the full support and backing of their federations, synagogues and communities. Others, more often, can be compared to lone soldiers – alone in the uphill battle for equal rights for Jews with disabilities. It shouldn’t be so hard, but it is, as many Jews don’t yet understand that all people have a spark of God inside them.
I am too young to have witnessed the early Zionists who built Israel. But I have often imagined what it might have been like to walk in their midst. I imagine it would have looked a lot like the Jews meeting in inclusion last week – people who want to change the world – and to make it open and safe for other Jews.
This training was an intense investment in human capital. It was funded by the Ruderman Family Foundation, with travel support from the H.J. Weinberg Foundation. It’s just one of many investments these foundations are making to enable people with disabilities to reach their dreams. They are amazing and I feel fortunate that I get to engage with these philanthropic leaders in my own work on a regular basis.
The Ruderman Family Foundation has really defined how one foundation can take an issue, put a stake in the ground and go out to do battle for positive social change. The foundation not only funded this training, they are funding project after project on inclusion in the Jewish world. So who are they?
Morton Ruderman, of blessed memory, founded and led the successful Meditech, as well as real estate companies. He was poor as a child, but came from a strong family. He walked his grandmother, who was blind, to shul on a regular basis. Later, he became a noted philanthropist who was especially concerned about the fact that many Jews with disabilities are denied access to Jewish life.
When he died, his wife Marsha and their three children organized to build and carry out Morton’s philanthropic ideals. Jay, who lives in Israel; Todd in Florida and Sharon, who lives in the same Boston area where the family foundation is headquartered, have done an outstanding job paving the way for tens of thousands of Jews with disabilities to be fully involved in their faith and culture.
Jay Ruderman and his wife Shira are actively leading a positive transformation of Jewish life in America, even though they live in Israel with their children. I can’t help feeling that somehow this is the beginning of coming full circle. Decades ago American Jews gave their hearts, souls and wallets to help Israel. Today, an Israeli family and their American relatives are working to make us whole.
The Rudermans and their extremely talented staff are investing in human capacities and leadership and working to bridge divides. They are funding transformational change and building a generation of leaders who, like the chalutzim, or pioneers, before us, can do remarkable things for the Jewish people. Because of them, Jews with and without disabilities, and those in Israel and North America, are coming together. It’s a vision that’s inspiring. Let’s hope it causes a trend.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the founder and president of laszlostrategies.com in Washington, D.C and the co-founder of RespectAbilityUSA. She is a proud parent who knows the challenges of raising a Jewish child with special needs.