created at: 2011-10-19Jay Ruderman is the president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, a leading funder of disability advocacy in the Jewish community and programs strengthening the relationship between Israelis and American Jews. Although originally from Massachusetts, Jay now lives in Rehovot, Israel. He blogs at Zeh Lezeh (For One Another) and is currently preparing for the second annual Advance Conference focused on funding Jewish special needs initiatives.

Why has advocacy for Jewish people with disabilities become so central to your philanthropy?

The Ruderman Family Foundation believes that inclusion of people with disabilities is essential if we are to be proud of our Jewish community. As Jews, we can’t be proud of the type of relationship we have with each other and with our brothers in Israel if some members of the Jewish community are left out, and that is exactly the situation that we face today. Jewish people with disabilities do not have the same opportunities as everyone else and that is fundamentally unfair. They don’t have the same opportunities for employment – many Jews with disabilities are unemployed – and they don’t have the same opportunities for education and even to being connected with their faith. It is not consistent with our beliefs as a community; it is not consistent with the Talmud.

This is the second year of the Advance conference. What did you learn from last year's event that will inform this year's?

We learned that what is needed is innovation and creativity in including people with disabilities in our community, and these two things are more important than any single donation possibly could be. We learned we need to be collaborating and speaking with a single voice. This year, we look to focus that discussion even more intensively on particular approaches we can take and programs we can design that will foster greater inclusion for those with disabilities. We have vowed we cannot stand by while a large sector of our community is shut out.

What can individuals do to make their own communities and institutions more inclusive of individuals with disabilities?

At this time of year, reflection is a particularly important quality. We must reflect upon what steps we can take to create more opportunity. It may seem like a daunting task, but what we have learned is that often we need a small step, not a huge leap. For instance, some employers refuse to consider individuals with disabilities because they view the accommodations as being so costly and difficult. Reality has proven that sometimes these accommodations are quite simple – like providing a seat or a handrail – and the employer in return gets a committed, loyal, hard-working employee who experience shows often is a better performer than those without disabilities. As far as schools and synagogues go, it is really a matter of asking, “have we done all that we can to include people with disabilities in our community life?”

What are the most exciting innovations in the field right now, and what work is still left undone?

One initiative that is particularly exciting is our partnership with Jewish Vocational Service, Hebrew Senior Life, and CJP that will involve the training of individuals with disabilities to work in jobs at Hebrew Senior Life, where they will interact with seniors and create a nurturing, intergenerational bond. We have approached this task not just by training the workers, but by creatively assessing what Hebrew Senior Life’s workforce needs were and then preparing the individuals for those particular jobs. You could call it an employer-centered model. Too often in vocational training, we provide training and supports to individuals without considering what the employers’ needs are, and then we lament that there are no jobs available. We have some promising developments that we believe will mark a big change, but we cannot let up on our mission until we have a true sense of inclusion across our community.