Putting his mouth where his money is

Putting his mouth where

Jay Ruderman is no stranger to media interviews, he tells me as we sit together at a well-known Jerusalem cafe. Executive director of his family's multimillion-dollar charitable foundation, the former Bostonian turned Rehovot resident gave one a few months ago to a reporter from the Hebrew press.      "They called [the resulting article] 'Million Dollar Baby,'" he recalls bluntly, a hint of disappointment in his voice. "We [he runs the foundation together with Israeli-born wife Shira] wanted it to be about all the work we are doing here and in the US, but all they wanted to talk about was our wealthy lifestyle."     
ndeed, the article, which ran last May on Hebrew news Web site Ynet, focused on how Shira, a native of less-affluent Rehovot, had lucked out by marrying an American millionaire - apparently every Israeli girl's dream. The journalist quizzed the couple on their enviable life and what it was like to be so wealthy.     
"They wanted to know how we spend our money... not the money from the foundation, but our personal money," says Ruderman, 42, who took over the reins of the family's philanthropic business just over a year ago. "Most of our work focuses on helping Jewish children with special needs, and that is what I want to be known for."     
According to Ruderman, "effective philanthropy is the ability to take a family's wealth and invest it in a way that will have the biggest impact possible and create the biggest accomplishments for the society around it. The best way to do this is to focus on a specific area, and we have decided to help people with special needs."     
Already an influential force in the Boston Jewish community, providing backing for programs assisting pupils with a wide range of disabilities in some 14 Jewish day schools, Ruderman, who moved to Israel four years ago and now has four young children, says his goal is to implement a similar model over here.     
Being based in Israel will certainly give Ruderman the edge on his goals. Whereas in the past American Jewish donors would give their money to projects in full faith that it was reaching the right people, and even today US-based donors only come over for periodic visits, Ruderman and his wife can now assess directly whether a project in Israel is working or not.     
"Israelis are used to having Americans come and write out a check for their projects, but it's changing these days," he emphasizes. "Investors want much more involvement, and they want to know where their money is going. We want to be able to see the effects of our money on the people we are touching.     
"It's almost like being an entrepreneur," he muses. "We look at all different projects, we consider many different ideas. We don't really know what will succeed and what will fail, but we do know that if we are successful, then we will have done something really good."     
Already Ruderman has committed his family's foundation to a $6 million project, together with the government and the quasi-governmental American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), to run services allowing adults with disabilities more access to independent living in the community.     
"We wanted to be involved in something bigger in Israel, and this initiative will have so much impact on a specific area of society," explains Ruderman, who also hopes the project will raise awareness of people with special needs in general.     
And in keeping with his goal of being a "hands-on" philanthropist, Ruderman will sit on the decision-making board of the project, which in Hebrew is called Masad Nechuyot (it has yet to be given an English name), together with representatives of the JDC and the Health and Welfare and Social Services ministries.     
The foundation's $2 million commitment, which was equally matched by the other partners, is at least for the next four years and will hopefully improve the lives of a large portion of the country's 700,000 adults with disabilities.     
RUDERMAN'S PATH to championing his family's philanthropic designs was not as straightforward as one might think. A graduate of Brandeis University and Boston University School of Law, he initially embarked on a career as an assistant district attorney in Salem, Massachusetts.     
"I was a prosecutor for five years," he recalls, adding, "I wasn't happy and wanted to make a switch in my life."     
Giving up his promising career in law, Ruderman left his hometown for Israel and started studying at Ulpan Akiva, near Netanya. It was not long afterward that he met his wife, an Arabic teacher, at the institution.     
After getting married, the two decided to move back to Boston in 2001.     
"I wanted my wife to understand where I came from," says Ruderman. "I also had this feeling that I wanted to do something to help Israel."     
While Shira began working with what was then a fairly small family foundation, Ruderman became the deputy director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in New England. He spent four years doing hasbara for the pro-Israel organization.     
Then a chance meeting with the IDF's Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern, who was head of the Human Resources Directorate at the time, brought Ruderman one step closer to making aliya.     
"He convinced me that I should be working for the army as a liaison for the Diaspora," says Ruderman, who in 2005 finally returned to Israel with his family and enrolled in the army. He was appointed to the position and started training IDF officers studying in military colleges abroad how to speak to Jews and better connect with the Jewish communities worldwide.     
However, the army's bureaucracy was discouraging, he says, and eventually he returned to AIPAC, working in its Jerusalem office with international donors visiting Israel.     
"At that time, my family's foundation was evolving from a simple checkbook to an organized business," says Ruderman. "As it began to grow, I started considering taking over as its president."     
While Ruderman's biggest venture in Israel to date is Masad Nechuyot, the foundation has also been working on several smaller projects, including an environmental awareness campaign in the city of Arad, the building of a synagogue on an army base and a scholarship fund enabling Druse students to enter the hi-tech field.     
"Our goal is to provide the seed money to allow a project off the ground," he says, pointing out that all the programs are run with government involvement on some level. "There is only so much we can do on our own, but if we have a partner - another philanthropic organization or the government - then we can reach many more people."     
With most of the existing projects started before his arrival on the scene, Ruderman emphasizes his earlier point of focusing on one area and really making a change in that field.     
"Obviously, these initiatives are really worthwhile, but we want to focus on the area that we have expertise in," he says, referring to the work in Boston with Jewish special-needs children. "I get approached all the time [by] nonprofits asking for funding, and while we want to be supportive of anything worthy, if it's not one of our main focuses, then we will have to turn them down."     
Streamlining, points out Ruderman, is the way of the future for many Jewish philanthropies today, especially given the current economic recession and the hit many organizations have taken from Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme.     
"We lost money from that, too," confesses Ruderman, who says most of his family's fortune derives from real-estate endeavors. "But we are moving forward.     
"Obviously, there is lots of tension in the organized world of Jewish giving," he observes. "There is less money coming in all around, but organizations that are run well will continue to prosper.     
"And that," he finishes, "is my goal. It is my role to take the wealth generated by my parents' generation and give it some meaning. I want to have a big impact in the Jewish world."