Jay and Shira Ruderman: Jews combining philanthropy and advocacy

No. 27 on The Jerusalem Post's Top 50 Most Influential Jews of 2022: Jay and Shira Ruderman.

 Jay and Shira Ruderman. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jay and Shira Ruderman.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

An advocacy-based approach is not normally the modus operandi of philanthropic organizations. However, the Ruderman Family Foundation – headquartered in both Jerusalem and Boston and led by President Jay Ruderman and Executive Director Shira Ruderman – believes that advocacy and philanthropy go hand in hand.

“In order to create disruption and, ultimately, pro-social outcomes, we bring advocacy to our work. We’re comfortable with criticizing certain aspects of the community we’re trying to change,” Jay Ruderman says.

Through this unique approach to change-making through philanthropy, Jay and Shira Ruderman have influenced how the aspects of our lives we often take for granted – everything from what we eat to what we watch – can have profound impacts on the way we see the world. 

This philosophy is embodied by a December 2021 initiative in which four of Israel’s five major television broadcasting and production companies (KAN, Reshet, HOT and Yes) signed the foundation’s pledge to audition actors with disabilities with each new studio production. The companies also committed to a more inclusive selection process for all jobs across the film industry, on and off screen. 

 Jay and Shira Ruderman receive Jerusalem Post Lifetime Achievement Award (credit: ALAN ROSENBAUM) Jay and Shira Ruderman receive Jerusalem Post Lifetime Achievement Award (credit: ALAN ROSENBAUM)

Helping promote disability inclusion in Hollywood

The pledge was a continuation of a similar one the foundation circulated in Hollywood that brought CBS Entertainment, NBC Universal, Paramount Pictures and Sony Pictures Entertainment all together in the commitment of promoting more inclusive and authentic representation in the American film industry.

The foundation works to ensure that the productions we see continue to be more inclusive and diverse than ever before. Its 2020 study in the US revealed that 22% of all characters with disabilities on network television, and 20% of characters on streaming services, are portrayed authentically by an actor with the same disability, marking significant progress from the foundation’s 2016 study, which found that only 5% of characters on TV were cast authentically.

The Ruderman family’s warning call surrounding the lack of inclusivity has also captured the attention of George Clooney, Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Norton, Bryan Cranston, Mark Ruffalo, Glenn Close and Eva Longoria, who each signed the organization’s open letter urging studios and network executives to audition and cast actors with disabilities.

As one of the newest members of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures’ board of trustees, Shira Ruderman is well positioned to continue the organization’s groundbreaking work in advocating for authentic representation in the entertainment industry.

Helping in Israel-Diaspora relations

MEANWHILE, IN the realm of Israel-American Jewry relations, Jay and Shira Ruderman’s work to expand dialogue has fostered connection, cooperation, and mutual understanding in the Knesset, American congregations and countless Jewish homes. 

The latest example is “Jewish Foodie” – a 10-part online video series launched in August 2022 that shows how Jewish communities in America uphold their customs and traditions through creative approaches to food, enabling Israelis to understand more deeply what makes these communities across the ocean tick. 

Indeed, given how food is one of the greatest connectors between people, there’s something not only riveting but transformative for Israelis to see one of their entertainment scene’s popular comedians (Ori Laizerouvich) devour Jewish American staples, whether they be classic or largely unknown, from bagels and lox in New York, to succulent brisket in Memphis, to a burger topped with a latke in Austin, Texas. 

Other examples of the foundation’s multifaceted efforts to strengthen Israel-American Jewry ties include hosting a celebratory evening in honor of the work of US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides; establishing the Knesset Caucus for Israel-American Jewry Relations, which aims to elevate the concerns of American Jews within the Israeli legislature’s deliberations; launching University of Haifa’s Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies, the only master’s degree in Israel that exclusively covers a wide range of issues pertaining to American Jewish life and American society; conferences such as the annual Symposium for the Professional Community in Israel; and research efforts that provide thought leaders and decision-makers the data needed to properly understand current trends in Israel-American Jewry relations.

Simultaneously, the Foundation maintains a substantial focus on effecting change in its US home region of New England, particularly by working to end the stigma associated with mental health and expand access to mental health resources.

In March 2022, the foundation announced a $3 million grant for Massachusetts General Hospital that aims to cultivate leadership in the healthcare sector by developing a transformative model of training, which will in turn produce the next generation of leaders in medicine.

The foundation identifies gaps in mental health resources and programs within the high school and higher education communities, such as supporting the Bridge for Resilient Youth in Transition (BRYT) program, which has been shown to increase graduation rates for students struggling with mental health challenges while stabilizing students at risk of developing serious mental health conditions. Last year, the foundation also partnered with Boston University to release a first-of-its-kind set of manuals to establish the best practices for college campus leave-of-absence policies. 

In the world of sports, the foundation collaborates with the Boston Red Sox on the annual IMPACT Awards, which in recent years have distributed grants to nonprofits across New England that raise awareness around mental health and improve mental health outcomes of individuals in their communities. In May 2022, the foundation and the Red Sox jointly pledged to combat the stigma surrounding mental health in sports, in a public event that featured remarks by Boston Mayor Michelle Wu.