Jay Ruderman Photo by Noam Galai
Jay Ruderman Photo by Noam Galai

“Supporting children with disabilities and becoming a role model for other philanthropists.”
By Debra Ruh

I had the pleasure to interview Jay Ruderman.  He is the President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, an impressive organization that focuses on the inclusion of people with disabilities in the United States and Israel. He also serves on the Board of Directors of the Jewish Funders Network and is a member of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Executive Committee.

Jay is married and a father of four children.  He is a life-long Bostonian and after graduating from law school, he began his career as an assistant district attorney in Salem, Massachusetts. He became Deputy Director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in New England in 2001.  He also enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in 2005 and became the liaison between the IDF and Diaspora Jewry.  After his service in the IDF, he became the Leadership Director for AIPAC in Israel.

Let’s begin the interview:

Debra Ruh (Debra) question:  Jay you are on a mission to change the way the United States and Israel view individuals with disabilities in society.  Tell us more about your mission.

Jay Ruderman (Jay) answer:  Individuals with disabilities are one of the last communities to have their rights systematically violated by the government.   Wikipedia defines social justice as, “the ability people have to realize their potential in the society where they live.”  This definition can be broken down into three parts: realizing potential, in society, and where they live.  For Jewish people with disabilities, each of these parts presents a challenge – and for the rest of us, they present an opportunity.

The full inclusion of people with disabilities in society is a matter of social justice, civil rights, and fairness. Every Jew counts, every Jew has something unique to offer our community, and every Jew is created in the image of God, no matter how they look or express themselves.  Approximately 1,000,000 Jews in the United States have some form of disability.  Look at that number again: 1,000,000 people, in the Jewish community alone. Our job must be to invite them in, not put up barriers to keep them out.

Can a person with a disability realize his or her potential?  The unemployment and underemployment rate for people with disabilities of working age is close to 80%.  Gainful employment can build a person’s self-esteem, enable him or her to get out of the house and be social, and change preexisting prejudices about his or her abilities.  Additionally, gainful employment allows individuals with disabilities to become contributing members of the workforce, which benefits the overall economy.  Keeping people with disabilities out of work leaves them at home, with little chance to realize their potential.

Are we, as a society, inclusive?  Many of our schools are not.  Many parents are forced to forgo a Jewish education because schools lack the resources or are unwilling to “accommodate” a child with disabilities. These children should not be accommodated.

They should be welcomed with open arms, like every other child! When considering moving to a new city, all parents have to consider educational options. Parents of children with disabilities have added concerns:  If the community is not inclusive, then the community is not meeting the needs of all citizens.

Debra Ruh (Debra) question:  Please explain more to our readers about your work in Israel and in the United States to include children with disabilities in society.

Jay Ruderman (Jay) answer:  Let me give some background about our foundation. The Ruderman Family Foundation is an American-Israeli foundation which focuses on recognizing and rewarding innovative programs which provide services that foster full inclusion of people with disabilities in their local Jewish community. It exemplifies the best in Jewish values. Guided by our Jewish values, we support effective programs, innovative partnerships and a dynamic approach to philanthropy in our core areas of interest: advocating for and advancing the inclusion of people with disabilities throughout the Jewish community and modeling the practice of strategic philanthropy worldwide.

Our first major foray into philanthropy was a large initiative to improve the Jewish day school system.  We partnered with another family and we determined that children with disabilities were not able to access the Jewish educational system.  We made a big commitment to this effort and have been involved in this project for over 10 years.

After becoming the president of the Ruderman Family Foundation my goal was to continue the excellent work of the foundation.  I also wanted to raise the inclusion of persons with disabilities to other foundations and philanthropists.

 Debra question:  Let’s talk more about your work in Israel.  

Jay answer: The foundation got involved in a major initiative with the Israeli government and an organization called the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to make Israeli society more inclusive of people with disabilities.  This was the first time a private family foundation partnered with the Israeli government.

The project is a series of pilot projects that allows the Israeli government to be a more proactive with inclusion of persons with disabilities.  The programs are supporting the Israeli government to move away from housing people with disabilities in institutions and instead create programs that allow persons with disabilities to live independently in their communities.  Centers for independent living programs are now located throughout Israel.

We felt strongly about supporting the established centers for independent living throughout Israel.  The programs help individuals with disabilities obtain or improve job skills.  We also have programs that are teaching them independence, self-defense strategies and how to react to violence.  The programs provide families that have young children with disabilities support networks of a myriad of issues focused on inclusion and unity.

After these programs were successful, we began to invest in other societal programs to help people with disabilities.  For example we support a project in Israel that helps persons with intellectual disabilities get married.  We partner with major organizations to help educate and bring awareness to issues that are impacting the full inclusion of individuals with disabilities.  By advocating for a more progressive model inclusion and funding innovative programs.

We are very active online and are heavily engaged with media in both the U.S. and Israel.  We believe it is critical to take a leadership role and publicly advocate for individuals with disabilities.

Debra question: How about your efforts in the United States?  Why don’t you tell us more.

Jay answer:  We are heavily engaged in the Boston area.  We realized that there is a major gap in the United States between education and entering the workforce.  Persons with disabilities are provided educational options until they are 21 years old.  We saw major transition from education to employment issues.  Unemployment for persons with severe disabilities is over 70%.   We decided to become part of the solution so we created an employment program in Boston called “Transitions to Work”.

The individuals with disabilities are trained at specific job sites.  For example, we have a program in a Boston area hospital.  After the student completes our program they secure positions with that hospital or with other hospitals in the area.

Our program teaches skill sets that are valuable to these employers.  Our program also is unique because we work with employers to determine the skill sets and the employers sign-off on the program to be sure it meets their training needs.   We started having more successful employment outcomes when we facilitated these conversations at the CEO level.  Once that happened we started to see a change in attitude and employers started to become major advocates for employment with people with disabilities.

One employer has hired many of our graduates.  The lead manager started talking to colleagues about the program and they found many positive by-products.  The manager noted that the company hired these employees not only because it is the right thing to do it but because it was good for their businesses bottom-line.  These efforts have changed their workforce.  Employee morale has been boosted all over the company.  Their employees feel good about working there because it’s not just about the bottom line but about becoming a socially conscious business.  They have become an employer of choice and they are able to recruit and retain better talent across the board.

Debra question: Tell our audience about the foundation and your efforts to support disability inclusion.

Jay answer:  We take a different approach from many other foundations.  For example, we do not accept unsolicited applications for support.  The Foundation’s methodology is very interactive with our grantees.  We issue an invitation to an applicant to apply after we have conducted a thorough analysis of the potential partner.  We check to be sure there is a shared vision, innovation, organizational strength and a willingness to collaborate.

We collaborate with other major funders to partner and promote the sharing of knowledge on or about successes in its mission.   Also our staff is heavily involved in the development of the programs.  They remain very involved in major programs funded over multiple years.  We carefully monitor the programs to assess future funding potential.

As part of our commitment to inclusion and enhancing the lives of adults and children with disabilities, we are actively supporting a range of innovative projects with organizations that focus on integration into society and minimizing feelings of loneliness. These projects cover education, housing, employment, synagogues, community life and much more.

To learn about the many organizations in the United States and Israel, past and current, who have received grants from the foundation, please click below:

Major partnerships:

Grantees in the United States:

Grantees in Israel:

To learn more about The Ruderman Foundation please visit: www.rudermanfoundation.org

To learn more about Jay Ruderman please visit: http://www.rudermanfoundation.org/about-us/staff/jay-ruderman