It has been a decade since the Ruderman Family Foundation made disability advocacy and inclusion the key to its philanthropic mission—a mission underscored by the Jewish value of social justice.
The Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project (RSIP) is the Foundation’s newest initiative on behalf of disability rights. Synagogues that are the beneficiaries of the Foundation’s generosity pledge that all people who walk through their doors, including those with profound disabilities, will be an integral part of Jewish life there.
RSIP and Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) will celebrate inclusion through “Opening Doors to Jewish Community,” on Monday evening, May 23, at Temple Emanuel in Newton. Neshama Carlebach and Josh Nelson will welcome RSIP’s newest congregational grantees and affiliates with song. Julia Watts Belser, professor of Judaic studies at Georgetown University and the evening’s keynote speaker, will discuss “Disability and the Art of Midrash.”
In an interview with JewishBoston, Belser connected her activism in the disability and Jewish communities with values that include tzedek (charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world). She also cited kavod—“respecting people’s agency and promoting dignity so that affirming the dignity of people with disabilities is a really central piece”—as crucial to advocating for disability rights in deed and thought.
“One of the things I’ll be talking about at the event,” she said, “is what it means for me to do what I call ‘disability midrash’—interpreting text, interpreting tradition and interpreting Torah from my own experience as a disabled woman. We can use the tradition; we can draw on traditional texts to build a very positive basis for thinking about the Jewish ethic of disability rights and disability inclusion. But that alone is not enough. I’m also interested in creating more space for people with disabilities, Jews with disabilities, our families, our loved ones, our friends, folks who understand themselves in some way to be a part of disability experiences and disability cultures. We want to have space to interpret Torah and to express our spiritual lives through the prism of our complex and diverse disability experiences.”
Implementing the Jewish ideal of inclusion in Boston’s Jewish community goes back to the Foundation’s founder and guiding spirit, the late Morton E. Ruderman. Ruderman’s commitment to inclusion began with a $10 million gift that he pledged to Boston’s Jewish day schools. As he learned more about these schools, he was troubled that children with disabilities could not be accommodated in them. Ruderman tasked his family, including his daughter, Sharon Shapiro, a trustee of the Foundation, and his daughter-in-law, Shira Ruderman, the Foundation’s Israel director, to address the problem. One of the Foundation’s solutions was to introduce a program called “Understanding Our Differences” to Jewish day school students. “A lot of kids feel uncomfortable around kids who are different just because they haven’t been exposed to them,” Shapiro said in a recent interview with JewishBoston. She noted, however, that the Jewish community has changed over the past decade regarding inclusion. “People realize the importance of this issue and are doing the work that needs to be done to make our Jewish community more inclusive,” she said.
Some of that work was formulated in RSIP’s pilot program, which launched three years ago and included three synagogues representing Judaism’s largest movements. The participating synagogues were the Reform Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, the Conservative Temple Emunah in Lexington and the Orthodox Congregation Shaarei Tefillah in Newton. In a recent email exchange, Rabbi Benjamin Samuels of Shaarei Tefillah noted that his synagogue’s partnership with RSIP “has stimulated new thinking of how we can grow even more as an inclusive community, and the funding we received has helped us add to our inclusion programs and advance inclusive culture at Shaarei.”
This year, RSIP’s reach has extended to include eight synagogues and six affiliates (see the list below), which represent the full spectrum of Jewish life. Molly Silver, who manages the partnership between CJP and RSIP, explains that all of the grantees embody the Rudermans’ vision of welcoming everyone into Jewish life. “It’s where we gather strength,” Silver said. “By partnering and increasing the number of synagogues in this project and adding an affiliate category—those synagogues at the beginning of their inclusion journey—it’s allowing us to have a much broader impact in the community.”
Silver said the current cohort’s commitment to inclusion was reflected in the strength of applications that signaled “broad communal change.” She said: “Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz, the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Newton, represents one of the eight RSIP grantees. He wrote that ‘to deepen our efforts at being a maximally welcoming shul, we are so grateful to the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project, which has deemed Temple Emanuel a partner synagogue in its noble aspiration to increase welcome in Greater Boston. Our partnership with RSIP will connect us to the experience and expertise, to resources and training and guidance, that we would not have on our own and that we need to be a better welcoming synagogue.’”
Sarah Abramson, CJP’s associate vice president of caring and social justice, describes RSIP “as an integral way of synthesizing much of the work we do here at CJP. Through the project we’re able to insure that spaces that are traditionally the most sacred and holy—our synagogues—are also welcoming and dignifying to people that society has decided are somewhat different than other people.”
Shapiro expanded this notion of difference: “My brother, [Foundation president] Jay Ruderman, says at some point in our lives everyone becomes disabled. We need to think about it in that way. It’s not so difficult to make people feel welcomed and included and to feel like equals even if they are disabled.”
2016 RSIP Grantees
Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, Newtonville
Temple Ohabei Shalom, Brookline
Temple Beth Shalom, Needham
Temple Emanuel, Newton
Temple Isaiah, Lexington
Temple Shalom, Newton
Temple Sinai, Brookline
Young Israel of Sharon
2016 RSIP Affiliates
Chabad of the North Shore, Swampscott
Congregation Beth El of the Sudbury River Valley
Congregation Kehillath Israel, Brookline
Congregation Shirat Hayam, Swampscott
Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue, Jamaica Plain
Temple Beth Zion, Brookline