While the development of inclusive, high-quality Jewish day schools may appear to be a logical consequence of Jewish values and teachings, in reality it has been more challenging than one might think.  For too many years students with special learning needs have been underserved (or excluded) in our day schools and other Jewish educational programs.

But, in the Boston area, a convergence of family advocacy, professional dedication, community commitment and the visionary leadership of certain philanthropists has resulted in some profound changes, a sea change now occurring in Jewish education.

One of these visionary leaders was Mort Ruderman (z’l) who stands out as a philanthropist whose legacy of goodness, humility, and passionate support for people with disabilities has created transformational changes in Boston and continues to live on in so many ways.  The commitment to special education and inclusion exhibited by the Jewish day schools in Greater Boston and championed by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ (CJP) Initiative for Day School Excellence are powerful examples of Mort’s legacy.

It’s been six years since the birth of the Special Needs Initiative, which was created through a partnership between the Ruderman Family FoundationCJPGateways (a regional Jewish special needs support agency), and Boston-area day schools.  Without the critical input and support from the Rudermans, the Initiative’s work to support each school’s ability to serve a wide array of learners with challenges – as well as the palpable shifts toward inclusion that have taken place — would simply not have occurred.

CJP’s Day School Initiative focuses on Access as one of its four day school agenda “pillars” (the others are Excellence, Advocacy, and Affordability).  Schools cannot be truly excellent academic institutions if they are not also committed to accessibility to a full range of learners.  To highlight this view CJP’s Special Education Advisory Committee, led by volunteers with a broad range of day school and special education experience, developed a CJP vision statement.  This statement, titled “Community Vision for Serving Students with Special Needs in Greater-Boston’s Jewish Day Schools,” has been widely circulated to send the clear message that including atypical learners is a value that Boston’s Jewish day school communities believe in, support and will strive to achieve.

There are a number of projects currently in process that will go a long way toward making the community vision for serving students with special needs in Boston a true reality.  For example CJP’s partnership with the Ruderman Foundation has led to day school “Partnership grants” and “Sustainability grants”—both programs aimed at strengthening and deepening our schools’ abilities to serve an ever broadening spectrum of learners.  Four Boston area schools have established a solid special needs infrastructure which has paved the way for them to develop more sophistication in the way they serve students.  The Partnership Grants will enable them to create an expanded set of options for students with learning needs and improve the quality of services being offered.  Five Boston area day schools continue their work after building a basic special education program service delivery system.  These schools have qualified for Sustainability Grants which will ensure that the program improvements they have made will not be lost.

So Mort’s legacy continues and grows today.  Now under the leadership of Jay Ruderman, Sharon Shapiro and the Ruderman Family Foundation, the vision is expanding.  Funders from throughout the Jewish community are coming together in support of new initiatives in different locations (in the U.S. and Israel).  It is remarkable how the passion and generosity of one man and a family foundation can spur on so many good things in the Jewish community.

This post was originally published on Zeh Lezeh (For One Another), the blog of the Ruderman Family Foundation.

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