Real impact requires real leadership

The Ruderman Family Foundation Opportunity Initiative seeks to place young people with disabilities in professional and meaningful internships at Jewish Federations.

Jewish Youths in Israel wave flags and stand atop a hill. The author recalls his own young days in Zionist youth groups. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jewish Youths in Israel wave flags and stand atop a hill. The author recalls his own young days in Zionist youth groups.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This year marked the kickoff of the Ruderman Family Foundation Opportunity Initiative, a partnership with the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) that seeks to place young people with disabilities in professional and meaningful internships at Jewish Federations. Interns began work in January at JFNA locations in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and New Jersey.
The Ruderman family focuses on inclusion as a core Jewish value. Specifically, the foundation seeks to include people with disabilities into Jewish life and community. Promoting understanding and connects between leaders of the American and Israeli Jewish communities is also important to the Rudermans, who live in Boston with their four children. 
Shira Ruderman, a native Israeli, is Israel director of the foundation. 
Jay, a Bostonian, is president.
The Jewish world is full of urgent unmet needs. How do you determine which to invest in and why?
There are myriad needs and innovative projects awaiting proper funding from our Jewish community, but we believe that unless funders define their areas of focus, they will lose the opportunity to achieve real social impact in their community. Our foundation has two areas of focus: the inclusion of people with disabilities in our society and the education of Israeli leaders about the American Jewish community. These are areas in which we are able to take a leadership role, highlight the importance of these issues to our community and have a real impact.
Do you have a philosophy of change?
We believe that in order to achieve real impact, funders must go narrow and deep in their funding. Real leadership can be achieved when a funder defines an issue that is not being addressed by the community and champions that issue by committing significant resources. Our philanthropy combines a very specific focus: funding innovation that pushes our community to be more inclusive and aware with a major advocacy effort. We have found that through advocacy and taking a very public role on the issues we fund, we can provide the kind of leadership that will have a major impact on our community.
How do you define success?
The business of philanthropy has been fixated on the inclusion of benchmarks and measurements in grant-making. While we also include benchmarks and measurements in our grants, there is something intangible when it comes to real societal change. We have seen that the inclusion of people with disabilities in our society has become an issue on the rise, and that has been a success for us. Success for us will be when we no longer have to fund the inclusion of people with disabilities because it has become an integral value of our community.
What is your vision for your partnership with the Federation system?
While we believe that we have some innovative ideas and the leadership to change our Jewish world for the better, ultimately we represent only one family. Through our partnerships with the Federation system, we have joined forces with organizations that truly represent the Jewish community in North America. Through our partnerships with Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) in Boston to provide disabled people with a Jewish education, a real job or an inclusive synagogue experience, we have been able to impact the entire Jewish community in Greater Boston. We have also partnered with JFNA to place people with disabilities in very public internships in Jewish Federations throughout the United States. In addition, we encourage the Federation system to use their bully pulpit to raise awareness about the right of inclusion for people with disabilities in our Jewish community.
Do Jewish values play a role in your decision-making about philanthropy?
We have defined our community as the Jewish community worldwide, so we see our role as building a better, more inclusive Jewish community. The name of our blog is Zeh Lezeh (For One Another), which comes from the teaching that all Jews are responsible for one another. That teaching has helped us define our vision of including each, and strengthening all.
Does your relationship with Israel play a role in your decision-making about philanthropy?
Our foundation has two offices -- one in Boston and one in Israel. We have been active in Israel for the past eight years, and we believe we have garnered a solid understanding of the philanthropic and nonprofit sector in Israel. In addition, we have several major national partnerships in Israel with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Government of Israel and other organizations that are making Israel a more inclusive society for people with disabilities. 
We have also brought several missions of members of Knesset and a group of leading Israeli journalists to the United States to educate them about the American Jewish community. We also established a caucus on the American Jewish community in the Knesset, as well as the first academic concentration on the American Jewish community at any Israeli university, the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies at the University of Haifa.
What is the philanthropic accomplishment you are most proud of?
That’s a very hard question to answer. To date, we believe that our partnership with CJP in Boston, which has made all the Greater Boston Jewish schools accessible to children with disabilities, has changed the values of our community. We are also very proud that we were the first private family foundation to partner with JDC and the Government of Israel in a partnership called Israel Unlimited, which is making Israeli society more inclusive for people with disabilities.
Do you have a vision about how to teach your children about philanthropy?
Our children are still very young. When we ask them if they know what we do, they answer, ‘You talk on the phone and write emails.’ We are very open in talking about our work at the foundation, and we try to bring our children to the events we attend and show them our projects. They say children learn by example, so we hope they will see that we are trying to improve our community.
Is there any person or agency that has had the strongest influence on your philanthropic values?
The late Mort Ruderman,(may he rest in peace), who founded the fund, had a tremendous impact on the foundation’s work. He truly believed in the value of fairness and that everyone had a right to be included in our community. That is why we ultimately decided to focus most of our work on the inclusion of people with disabilities.
Is there one quote that most inspires you?
‘It is not upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to idle from it.’ Rabbi Tarfon, "Pirkei Avot"