Welcome into the fold

For a stronger Jewish community, Jay Ruderman – of the Ruderman Family Foundation – works toward inclusion for the disabled

At the presentation of the Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion to visiting Harvard law professor Michael Stein (center). (photo credit: NIR LANDAU)
At the presentation of the Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion to visiting Harvard law professor Michael Stein (center).
(photo credit: NIR LANDAU)
People with disabilities are one of the last communities to have their rights systematically violated by the government,” says Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, a soft-spoken man who is one of Israel’s most passionate revolutionaries.
Ruderman may have picked a low-key spot from which to undertake a major transformation of Israeli society – he works out of a Rehovot office near the edge of a field where flocks of sheep graze – but he’s on a mission.
“People with disabilities are the largest minority group here,” he says. “As Israelis, we like to think we’re leading the world in technology... But we are behind the rest of the world in terms of inclusion.”
Ruderman wants to make full inclusion of people with disabilities into mainstream Israeli society as blue and white as the country’s flag.
The government’s current approach to people with disabilities in mainstream society is fundamentally wrong-headed for several reasons, in Ruderman’s view.
“Roughly 20 percent of the population has some form of disability, but this community is systematically discriminated against. They’re immediately identified, and there’s a predetermined notion of who they are... A lot of it is based on outdated attitudes, ‘This is the way we’ve always done things,’” he points out.
“There are employers who’ve done a great job,” he notes, among them the Aroma coffee chain in Israel; in the US (where his foundation also does work) at the Marriott Hotel chain and Walgreens. “It all comes from the leadership at the top, who have to say, ‘We believe we will be a better company by hiring people with disabilities.’” Frequently, though, in Israel, “there is a notion of hessed [acts of loving-kindness], and giving hessed subjugates people into a permanent underclass. ‘Let’s help them by putting them into a group home, a school, a sheltered workshop. They’re better off with their own kind,’ is the thinking.
“What you’re doing is creating segregation through hessed. It’s as if people feel, ‘Oh, we’re helping these poor miskenim [unfortunates].’ But that way, we’re not helping them progress with their lives.”
It’s an uphill battle to convince Israelis of this, something Ruderman knows. Like a lot of revolutionaries, he didn’t plan to become involved in this cause and he didn’t get into it in order to help any specific person in his life. He became aware of the issue, and how crucial it is, gradually.
His family had started its foundation in the US mainly with the goal to improve the quality of Jewish day schools, “so that they would be... on a par with any private school in the area,” he explains. Gradually, though the foundation added a new focus.
“We gravitated toward making the day schools inclusive for people with disabilities,” he says. “My family saw that there was a need for this. Families were being split” – with their disabled children going to schools outside the Jewish community.
The Ruderman Family Foundation supports many causes in the US – among them inclusion of disabled people into the Jewish community – but as Ruderman moved to Israel, so did part of the foundation’s focus.
Ruderman, who grew up in the Boston area and became a lawyer, then a criminal prosecutor, came to Israel for what he thought would be a short visit. He studied Hebrew at Ulpan Akiva in Netanya, then met Shira, his wife, an Israeli. Two of his children were born in the US and two were born here. Since his wife is from Rishon Lezion, he thought of moving to nearby Rehovot.
They married and spent a few years living in Boston “so that my wife could understand where I came from.” He decided to stop practicing law and began working for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, where he became deputy director of the New England office.
Eventually, during the second intifada, he decided that “Israel was in a time of crisis, and I wanted to contribute to its security.” He continued working for AIPAC in Jerusalem as leadership director, but in 2008 left to run his family’s foundation full-time.
While he is extraordinarily respectful toward his new home, he feels that “the government is not always as progressive as it should be.”
Ruderman feels private organizations and individuals can help in encouraging the government and citizens to change their thinking about people with disabilities, and in creating programs that will make for fundamental and lasting change in society.
“As projects become successful, then they get adopt ed by the government,” he says.
One project he is most excited about is Israel Unlimited, a partnership among the Israeli government, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (Mal - ben/JDC) and the Ruderman Foundation, to develop extensive community services for people with disabilities – especially adults with sensory, emotional and cognitive disabilities, as well as people whose chronic health problems cause them severe impairments.
The partnership’s goal is to integrate these individuals fully into the community while ensuring their maximum independence in everyday life, through the creation and implementation of unique programs and services to meet the needs of all Israelis with disabilities. As part of the project, specific programs will be developed for those with multiple disabilities, the newly disabled, immigrants, young adults with disabilities and other groups.
What is key about this program is that it is designed to help people with disabilities live as part of the mainstream community. Another central goal is that it will allow them to live as they choose, and not be residents in a large institution.
“I always say to people that if someone came to me as an adult and said, ‘You can only live in a group home, where you cannot control your life,’ I would not want that.
“People may have a disability, but why don’t they deserve the rights that any of us have to control our lives? Most states in the US have closed down their institutions. Large institutions for the disabled are a discarded, failed policy.”
Another crucial initiative is the Ruderman Prize in Inclusion global competition, held for the third time this year. The prize recognizes organizations that have demonstrated their commitment to the full inclusion of people with disabilities into the Jewish community through innovative programs and services. The $250,000 award is split equally by five organizations, with winners announced in the summer; among this year’s winners was an Israeli initiative, Bar-Ilan University’s Empowerment Program, which gives people with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to study at university level.
Over the last two years, 15 organizations around the world have received the prize, including agencies in Russia, the UK, the US, Mexico, Israel, South Africa and Argentina. The winners have included schools, a synagogue, a dance company, a bakery and organizations that serve all Jews, whether they have a disability or not.
“People think of the disabled community as us and them,” he says. “But it’s the one community we will all join [as we age]. It’s our neighbor, it’s our friend, it’s us.
And by working for inclusion together, we will all be better Jews.”