Ruderman’s dual challenge

The prominent philanthropist talks about improving ties between US Jews and Israel, and advancing the rights of people with disabilities.

Ruderman speaking at Northeastern University (photo credit: ERIC HAYNES)
Ruderman speaking at Northeastern University
(photo credit: ERIC HAYNES)
Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation with offices in Boston, New York and Israel, believes that “inclusion and understanding of all people is essential to a fair and flourishing community.” The foundation works to advance the inclusion of people with disabilities at all levels of society, and to strengthen the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community.
Jay and his wife, Shira, the executive director, come to Israel often. On a recent trip, I sat down with Jay at a café in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market.
I’m going to be blunt. Do you remember relations between US and American Jews ever being this bad?
The combination of the political leadership and the situation here is challenging but has it been this bad? Sure, I remember the AWACS sales to the Saudis.
The foundation has been operating for about two decades, and our focus has been on disability rights. People think about disability – there’s a big spectrum. Traditionally people with disabilities have been institutionalized, segregated; our focus has always been on disability rights and working with people with disabilities to ensure they’re able to live, work and worship in the community. We have an office here in Israel and a major partnership with the Israeli government. In the US, we work with both the Jewish and non-Jewish community. We are active in Hollywood and in major league sports.
I used to work for AIPAC in both the US and Israel. I also worked in the IDF for Elazar Stern as the liaison between the IDF and the Jewish Diaspora. I met many Israeli politicians from different parties and I would talk to them about security, diplomacy economics – and I was met with ignorance or ambivalence. So, when I professionally started to run the foundation, I added this issue to our disability issue but I flipped it. There are a lot of people who bring American Jews to Israel or educate American Jews on Israel such as Birthright.
My approach to philanthropy is that I see myself as an activist. I’m a lawyer – I was a prosecutor involved in politics – and philanthropy can be influential but it’s often very incremental, and the change is slow. If you combine that with social activism, sometimes change can happen very quickly. I’ve always been interested in where there’s a vacuum – where there’s an ability to have leadership and not to just follow the crowd.
When I took over the foundation, we built a synagogue in (the officers’ training base) Bad 1. We were involved in a recycling program in Arad, but I decided to get into areas that were not well-served. There was not a lot of activism in philanthropy in disability rights in the Jewish community. There was no one educating Israeli leaders on the American Jewish community. We started taking delegations of Knesset members from across the spectrum to the US to learn about the American Jewish community. Now more than 40 have been taken.
Let me give you an example. Avi Dichter, who today is in Likud but used to be in Kadima, told me, “Listen, I’ve been to America 400 times and I’m always speaking about Israel’s security. I never learned about the American Jewish community until I spent a week with you guys in America.”
Then we started taking [Israeli] journalists to the US and we’ve taken about 30. We were also able to establish the only academic program at any university on the American Jewish community. It’s a masters and PhD program at the University of Haifa.
The American Jewish community is vital to Israel’s security and its future but the narrative has always been “The American Jewish community will always be there for us in times of trouble.” [But] the American community has changed. Attitudes toward Israel have changed. My parents grew up in the 1950s and at that time they didn’t have a lot of associations with non-Jews because there were a lot of quotas and stigmas, but now American Jews are 4th, 5th, and 6th generation. Although there’s antisemitism and it’s alive and well, a lot of the traditional stigmas against Jews have gone away. Jews are prominent in every sector of American society and completely assimilated.
Ronit Tirosh, who was in Kadima, was on our first delegation. After our mission she told me that the way she saw American Jewry was that you’re a Jew who happens to live in America because your parents or grandparents went there; but as a Jew your first allegiance is to Israel and while aliyah is the highest goal, if you don’t make aliyah at least you’re going to support Israel. I told her that American Jews see themselves as Jewish and American and don’t differentiate between the two. They don’t see a need to say “I’m a Jew first.”
Aliya from North America has never been huge, and support for Israel is shifting. Israeli culture and American culture are completely different. We say, “You don’t have to love American Jews but we should speak to each other with respect.”
Do you feel support for Israel has become a partisan issue?
When the speaker of the House, John Boehner, invited Bibi to come speak about the threat from Iran and the president of the US urged Netanyahu not to make that speech and the speech went ahead, Democrats harbored a lot of ill will toward Netanyahu. That continues until today. When the prime minister runs a campaign and puts [out] a campaign poster of him with President Trump – that causes a lot of ill will among Democrats.
Ninety percent of American Jews identify as Democrats or the Left. That doesn’t have to do with Israel – it has to do with social issues in America. The immense dislike for Trump and his policies by American Jews is palpable. In America most people don’t want to talk about politics these days. Recently the president put out a tweet saying no Jew should vote Democratic because it’s an anti-Jewish party. That is ridiculous. Trump has done some things that most Jews would say are good – recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, opposing the Iran deal – but his rhetoric and anti-immigrant stance, which is so foreign to most American Jews, has caused a divide.
There are two kinds of antisemitism in America. The antisemitism on the Right or white nationalism is one. There have been dog whistles from the president emboldening people. On the Left you have the emergence of a progressive wing in the Democratic Party, which is growing and is not great on Israel. A lot of their statements are antisemitic such as Representative Ilhan Omar and her tweets, which were condemned as antisemitic.
The relationship between the leadership of Israel and the US seems to be pretty good, but I don’t think it’s great between American Jews and Israel. AIPAC is in a tough situation. Its power has always been as a non-partisan organization. If the progressive wing of the Democratic Party begins not to work with AIPAC, that’s a bad thing.
You are best known for your work for disabilities rights. What new initiatives are you taking?
In both the US and Israel we formed a group called “Linked 20,” which has members both with and without disabilities who advocate for their rights. In Israel we number in the thousands. They have had a lot of impact on both the economy and politics. One of the reasons I’m here in Israel – we sponsored this concert called “Kululaam” in Tel Aviv with 8,000 people, with and without disabilities, with the Israeli artist Stephan. Of those, 2,000 were our list of people and the other people bought tickets. We don’t have this in the US.
What’s different in disability rights in Israel and the US?
America is 50 states, which differ. Some states are much better at employment, others at inclusive housing. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the unemployment rate of people with disabilities is double the unemployment rate of the general population, meaning 8% of those actively looking for work.
However, only 20% of the disability community are actively looking for work, so 80% are not looking for work and not in the sector. It’s because of so many factors. There’s stigma, transportation, and other issues. We’ve tried to do different entrepreneurial things to get society to look at disability in a way they haven’t. We give out a $100,000 award every year in my dad’s memory to one individual who’s done a lot to further the issue of people with disabilities. We’ve given it to Marlee Matlin, who’s the only woman with a disability to win an Oscar, and Tom Harkin, a senator from Iowa, who’s one of the authors of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This year we’re giving it to Michael Phelps, who is the most decorated Olympian of all time. He has come out about his own mental health and we hope to raise the profile of the issue.
We do a lot of funding and we fund tens of millions of dollars, but I’m attached to the activism. Major League Baseball has the “disabled list” – if you get hurt, you’re put on the disabled list. We challenged them and said, “Someone who pulls a hamstring is not permanently disabled,” and they changed it to the “injured list.”
Another issue has to do with the Olympics. When someone wins a medal, they get a certain amount of money as an Olympian. Para-Olympians (with disabilities) are paid a fraction of the cost. We challenged the Olympic committee and they agreed to pay on parity. We are a combination of funding and activism, and producing academic reports that spark discussion.■