Jay Ruderman, president of Ruderman Family Foundation, recently recalled the moment the foundation’s commitment to disability and mental health advocacy crystallized. It was 2005, and the foundation had committed to being part of the Peerless Excellence Initiative, a CJP project that raised $45 million in anonymous donations for Boston’s Jewish day schools.
“In 2005, we didn’t really have a focus, but we found one of the aspects left out of day schools was an inclusion of children with disabilities,” said Ruderman in an interview with JewishBoston. “It was an issue of fairness, and at the time, my dad, Morton E. Ruderman, was alive, and it resonated with him that children with disabilities were being turned away from day schools in Boston.”
The foundation’s involvement in disability activism soon extended beyond Boston as it entered a partnership with the Israeli government and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). “We created a series of projects adopted by the Israeli government that moved them to a more inclusive model for people with disabilities in Israeli life,” he said. “It included engaging various communities and the general workforce. Then we reached out to national and international Jewish organizations and the major religious streams, including Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Chabad. That’s how we started to have a broad impact beyond the community in which we started.”
In addition to making inroads for disabled Israelis, Ruderman, who lived in Israel for nine years, observed that many Israeli decision-makers did not have a nuanced understanding of the American Jewish community. Through his work with AIPAC and the Israel Defense Forces, Ruderman organized missions to the United States for Knesset members and journalists. “There was a leadership vacuum in educating Israelis about American Jews, and we stepped in to fill it,” noted Ruderman.
Ruderman’s advocacy in bridging differences and capitalizing on similarities between Israeli and American Jewry led to the founding of The Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies at the University of Haifa’s Department of Israel Studies. Now in its 10th year, the program is the sole academic undertaking of its kind in Israel.
Ruderman said that when he became president of the foundation in 2008, it went through a trajectory of working on disability issues in education and then employment. “We began to see a phenomenon that students with disabilities graduated from high school but were left behind,” he said. That sparked a collaboration among CJP, JVS Boston and the foundation to create Transitions to Work, a program that trains adults with disabilities, helping them develop job skills to launch their careers, and educate employers about inclusive hiring, which continues to operate through JVS Boston.
As Ruderman and his family went deeper into disability advocacy, they also realized Jews connected with the Jewish community through their synagogues. That realization led to the creation of the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project in partnership with CJP. To date, 53 synagogues in Massachusetts are making their spaces more inclusive and accessible.
Over the past decade, Ruderman said that while the foundation’s mission has evolved, every project it undertakes is in tandem with core Jewish values and support for the State of Israel. In recent years, Ruderman has expanded the foundation’s focus to examine antisemitism and anti-Israel animus throughout the world. And, most recently, the foundation has made mental health a priority. Ruderman and his sister, Sharon Shapiro, a community liaison and trustee of the foundation, have led the charge to fund more programs in mental health. The change was a natural next step for the foundation. “We were becoming a world where most people are dealing with issues of mental health in their families or by themselves,” Ruderman said.
In recognizing mental health issues, the foundation has built adjacent programming to eradicate stigma. The foundation instituted the annual Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion to recognize individuals who have made noteworthy contributions to disability inclusion and mental health awareness. Past winners have included Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, actor Taraji P. Henson and professional basketball player Kevin Love. These awardees “have all done a great job speaking out about their mental health issues,” Ruderman noted. “Giving the award to them generates a tremendous amount of media attention. They are role models speaking out about mental health.”
Ruderman’s ongoing interests in politics and policy have been integrated into the foundation’s mission. “I wasn’t initially interested in philanthropy,” he said. “Historically, it meant giving to organizations that did the advocacy work. We have evolved into seeing our foundation as establishing a new direction for our community. We have focused on public advocacy. You can implement many programs, but until you change public attitudes, things don’t change.”
Ruderman has explored his diverse interests in a podcast he hosts, aptly called “All Inclusive with Jay Ruderman.” Now in its fourth season, the podcast’s tagline indicates that Ruderman and his guests explore “inclusion, innovation and social justice.” To that end, the biweekly podcast has had an impressive roster of guests spotlighting various areas of activism. Initially, Ruderman invited people who were mostly active in the disability world. “The reach is broader now,” he said. “It’s become a combination of celebrities, well-known people in their field and citizens with interesting life stories. All of them are passionate about their activism and have been tremendously impactful.”
His conversations with guests reflect his approach of “going narrow and deep—picking issues that are not well-focused on and in time becoming experts on them.” For example, Ruderman recently hosted back-to-back episodes on antisemitism featuring Abraham Foxman, former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, and historian Deborah Lipstadt, nominated as antisemitism envoy for the State Department. “Antisemitism is a growing concern in the Jewish community that I’m particularly interested in,” said Ruderman.
Another recent episode featured an interview with actor RJ Mitte, who starred in “Breaking Bad.” Mitte has cerebral palsy and spoke with Ruderman about breaking down barriers for disabled actors. This week, actor Geena Davis will discuss her activism on gender bias in the entertainment world. As with everything Ruderman and his foundation continue to do, he hopes the podcast will “inspire people to take away something that will help them realize they have an impact beyond listening.”