Ruderman foundation ends disability giving, opens void in Jewish inclusion

The family foundation announced the change in a news release in September that drew little attention.

Rep. Jim Langevin, left, of Rhode Island greets former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin at a Ruderman Foundation Inclusion Summit in Boston (photo credit: NOAM GALAI)
Rep. Jim Langevin, left, of Rhode Island greets former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin at a Ruderman Foundation Inclusion Summit in Boston
(photo credit: NOAM GALAI)

To many in the Jewish world, the Ruderman Family Foundation is synonymous with efforts to increase inclusion for Jews with disabilities.

Based in Boston, but active across the United States and in Israel, the foundation has doled out some $75 million over the past 18 years to support inclusion. Just this month — Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month — the foundation is credited with sponsoring a virtual reading of a children’s book with Chabad and collaborating with Boston’s Jewish federation to make synagogues more welcoming to people with disabilities.

But now the future for such efforts — and for the foundation’s $160 million in assets — is unclear. While advocates say the Ruderman foundation has changed the conversation in the Jewish world about disability, the foundation itself has decided to end its giving around inclusion issues.

The family foundation announced the change in a news release in September that drew little attention. It said its investments had paid off and the original mission of igniting a process of social change had been accomplished.

“We felt when we decided to transition onto our next focus that we should do it in a strategic and transparent way,” Jay Ruderman, the foundation’s president, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “The announcement was to tell the community that we feel that we have reached a milestone and that we have achieved certain successes in the field.”

Those accomplishments are unmistakable to many in the field.

“The Rudermans deserve tremendous credit for bringing the issue of Jewish disability inclusion forward,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, a disability advocacy group. “They have done outstanding work and created many leadership opportunities and services.”

At the same time, Mizrahi said, the foundation’s decision to withdraw has injected uncertainty for the many people who gained jobs or essential support because of Ruderman-funded initiatives.

“Today we are being flooded with emails of Jews with disabilities who want ongoing involvement and support, as well as Jewish professionals who want to continue to advance Jewish inclusion,” Mizrahi said.

Dozens of Jewish organizations have benefited from the foundation’s giving, meaning that the impact of Ruderman’s change in direction could be widespread.

Within the Conservative movement, for example, disability work ramped up about six years ago with the help of the Rudermans. Dozens of congregations got guidance on how to upgrade their entryways and restrooms, and rabbis committed to speaking about disability issues from the pulpit. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism even brought on a renowned educator to serve as its first-ever inclusion specialist.

But with the sunset of a Ruderman grant, the position no longer exists. The person who had filled it, Jennifer Gendel, declined to respond to questions, as did United Synagogue, which instead offered a brief statement from Rabbi Joshua Rabin, who oversaw disability efforts in the past and now serves as senior director of teen engagement.

“As with any organization that relies on foundation funding, sometimes funding sunsets and directs to other things,” Rabin said. “We are doing our best to raise funds for this incredibly important work from other sources.”

Because recipients of grant funding are beholden to the priorities of donors — a boon when those priorities overlap with their own, a potential crisis when they do not — the philanthropic sector has developed norms around transitions.

“As a general rule, if a funder is going to exit a field, then the most responsible way to do it is with a whole lot of notice and a whole lot of transparency,” said Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy. “People change priorities and wind down things all the time. It’s not in and of itself a bad thing. It’s about doing it responsibly.”

Ruderman said he was not concerned about the future of the work his family foundation funded. He suggested that help could come from other foundations or even through crowdsourcing, although he did not offer specifics.

“I think the community is so large that if your programs are innovative and needed by the community, you’ll be able to find that support,” Ruderman said. “Once a program is established and becomes a central value of the community, it’s very difficult for those programs to go away.”

The foundation launched in the early 2000s with Ruderman’s father, Morton, who made his fortune at Meditech, creating software for the health care industry. What was supposed to be a straightforward contribution to Boston-area Jewish schools transformed when Morton Ruderman decided to focus on allowing children with disabilities to attend those schools.

That was followed by a partnership with the Israeli government on disability to pay for job training, support groups and better coordination among service agencies. The Rudermans went on to fund programs and scholarships across the United States with commitments to groups ranging from Hillel to Chabad to the Jewish Federations of North America.

But a few years after Morton Ruderman died, Jay Ruderman had largely soured on funding for direct services for disabled people in the Jewish world. He told JTA in 2017 that progress was too incremental and that the foundation was betting on a different strategy. The Rudermans had begun focusing outside of the Jewish world on advocacy in the entertainment and sports world. Through awards and prizes, they recognized movie studios and networks that improved the representation of disabled people on screen. In baseball, they helped get professional teams to use the term “injured list” instead of “disabled list.”

The younger Ruderman also told JTA that there was “a greater social impact” with the new focus.

“To me, that’s so much more exciting than going through the intricacies and incremental process of getting someone a job or a house,” he said.

Now, as the foundation makes another big change, Ruderman did not offer a similar explanation of his thinking. He simply described the current moment as an appropriate milestone.

His foundation is recruiting ideas for where it should redirect the earnings from its assets going forward. The public has until the end of March to nominate ideas for a new mission.

Disability advocates say there is no funder as devoted to disability issues in the Jewish world as Ruderman long was. They also note that the foundation’s announcement came during a global pandemic that has unsettled long-standing funding dynamics, increased need in the Jewish world and beyond, and required some strategies for disability inclusion to be reimagined for a period of digital Jewish communities.

Ruti Regan, a rabbi and a disabled disability advocate, said funding for disability inclusion has never reached adequate levels. She predicted that needs would be increasingly visible as synagogues and schools reopen.

“If our community and our communal institutions want to be viable, we are going to have to get our act together around disability and do it fast or a lot of things are going to fail,” she said.

For now, no major funder has announced it would step up to replace the Rudermans. But for Matan Koch, a former consultant for the Rudermans and the current director of Jewish leadership at RespectAbility, one way to measure success in this field would be an end to the notion that there’s one main funder for disability issues.

“Access and inclusion would become a regular part of funding a Jewish event,” he said.

From conversations that Andrés Spokoiny, the president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network is having, there’s a reason for optimism. Disability inclusion, he said, is a topic that interests many funders.

“It is never good for an entire field to be dependent on a single funder,” he said. “There is wisdom in the Rudermans stepping aside and letting other leadership emerge. There is also an opportunity for resetting the field.”