The downside of ‘hessed’

The Jewish community struggles with inclusion of people with disabilities.

From left: Shira Ruderman, Sharon Shapiro, Sen. Tom Harkin (recipient of the 2015 Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion, Jay Ruderman and Marcia Ruderman (photo credit: NOAM GALAI)
From left: Shira Ruderman, Sharon Shapiro, Sen. Tom Harkin (recipient of the 2015 Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion, Jay Ruderman and Marcia Ruderman
(photo credit: NOAM GALAI)
One of the biggest barriers to the inclusion of people with disabilities within the Jewish community is the belief in hessed, Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, told The Jerusalem Post.
“I see organizations fundraise by saying that children and adults with disabilities are really disadvantaged and they need help. And helping them means giving them a segregated education, a segregated place to live,” he added.
“People aren’t sophisticated enough to understand that what the disability community really wants is to be included like everyone else.”
According to Ruderman, there is a general belief that segregation, or the idea of “separate but equal,” is acceptable for people with disabilities.
“It’s the belief that you can keep them separate and treat them in a charitable way, and they don’t have to be included in society,” he said. “We’re completely against that view.”
Ruderman’s wife, Shira, who serves as the Israel director of the foundation, said she believes the Jewish community and society at large often view inclusion as a program or an initiative instead of seeing it as a value or mind-set.
“The more religious you are, the more you wear the glasses of hesed and not justice,” she said. “So what we are trying to do is change the discussion among the Jewish community and explain that we should not view inclusion as an initiative but just as part of our values.”
The foundation, which has been pushing for the inclusion of people with disabilities in the US and in Israel for over 10 years, dedicates a large part of its efforts to making sure people with disabilities are included within Jewish life.
It has recently entered a partnership with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in order to “transform Conservative congregations into truly inclusive communities for people with disabilities.”
The initiative is part of several collaborations with different Jewish religious movements, such as the Reform movement, Chabad Lubavitch and the Orthodox Union, in which the foundation has invested millions of dollars.
Making Jewish life inclusive, the Rudermans believe, begins with the synagogues themselves. When the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, however, it mandated for public places to be accessible for people with disabilities, but religious institutions were left out, and are not required to be so by law.
For synagogues to fully include people with disabilities, Jay Ruderman says, many details need to be taken into consideration.
“It could mean that congregants would have to be more accepting if there is a person with disabilities who may speak out during prayers; or there may be a ramp needed to get into the synagogue; or people may have to use a braille siddur,” he said. “I can tell you story after story of people who told me they don’t go to the synagogue because there is no way for them to participate.”
Sharon Shapiro, director of the foundation’s Boston office, where it originated, said most Jewish places of worship still lack an understanding of how to accommodate people with disabilities, beyond the technical aspects of it.
“They offer them no programming and conversation,” she said. “It may be accessible, and so people think that they’re opening their doors and so everybody is welcome, but it’s an area that needs to be improved, and we’re making progress.
“Sometimes people need to be taught what inclusion means,” Shapiro added. “They may have no idea how to change their synagogue, or where to start.”
Inclusion in religious life, Jay Ruderman believes, very much depends on leadership.
“When there is a chairman of the board or a rabbi of a synagogue who says ‘I want this to happen,’ it happens,” he said. “When you have people saying it’s too expensive or that they can’t or don’t know how to do it, then it doesn’t happen."
“I don’t buy the argument that it’s too expensive. There is enough money in the Jewish community,” he continued.
The foundation also recently evaluated its last 10 years of work on disability inclusion with separate evaluations conducted by independent companies in both the United States and Israel.
“We were honored to learn that we have played a major role in raising the field of disability inclusion in our worldwide Jewish community,” the foundation’s president said. “These evaluations will also help us become better partners with our grantees who are implementing inclusion on the ground.”
Jay Ruderman knows achieving inclusion is “going to take a while,” but what the foundation is striving for, he explained, is “a tipping point where if a Jewish community is not inclusive, then they’re going to be seen as being on the wrong side of history.”
“I draw strength from the fact that I know we are on the right side of history, that people deserve to be treated equally no matter what their ability or their ethnicity,” he said.