Last week I observed a first of its kind gathering – a five-day intensive professional training on inclusion of people with disabilities that was held for American Jewish leaders and practitioners. The forum took place in a kosher retreat center outside of Baltimore, and people had come from many cities to learn in a special curriculum that was designed by disability inclusion thought leaders Shelly Christensen and Prof. Steve Eidelman.
Most of the participants were between 30-50 years in age and were eager to learn and share experiences. Some of them feel they have the full support and backing of their federations, synagogues and communities. Others, more often, can be compared to lone soldiers – alone geographically in the uphill battle for civil and equal rights for Jews with disabilities. Their work shouldn’t be so hard, but it is, as many Jews don’t yet understand that ALL people have an equal spark of G-d inside of them.
I am too young to have witnessed the early Zionists who built Israel before it even because a nation. But I have often imagined what it might have been like to walk in their midst. I imagine it would have looked a lot like the Jews meeting for inclusion training last week – people who want to change the world – and to make it open and safe for other Jews.
This training was an intense investment in human capital. It was funded by the Ruderman Family Foundation with travel support from the H.J. Weinberg Foundation. It’s just one of many investments these foundations are making to enable people with disabilities (PwDs) to reach their dreams. They are amazing, and I feel fortunate that I get to work with these philanthropic leaders in my own work on a regular basis.
The Ruderman Family Foundation has really defined how one foundation can take an issue, put a stake in the ground, and go out to do battle for positive social change. The foundation not only funded this training, they are funding project after project on inclusion in the Jewish world. So who are they?
Morton Ruderman, of blessed memory, founded and led the successful Meditech, as well as real estate companies. He was relatively poor as a child, but was from a strong family. On a regular basis he would walk his grandmother, who was blind, to shul. Later he became a truly noted philanthropist who was especially concerned with the fact that many Jews with disabilities are denied access to Jewish life.
When he died Morton died, his wife Marsha their three terrific children organized to build and carry out Morton’s philanthropic ideals. Jay, who lives in Israel, Todd in Florida, and Sharon who lives in the same Boston area where the family foundation is headquartered, have done an outstanding job paving the way for tens of thousands of Jews with disabilities to be fully involved in their faith, Jewish culture as well as to live as independently as they can.
Jay Ruderman and his wife Shira are actively leading a positive transformation of Jewish life in America, even though they live in Rehovot, Israel with their young children. I can’t help feeling that somehow this is the beginning of coming full circle. Decades ago American Jews gave their hearts, souls and wallets to help Israel. Today, an Israeli family and their American relatives are working to make us whole.
The Rudermans and their extremely talented staff professionals are investing in human capacities and leadership, and working to bridge divides. They are funding transformational change and building a generation of leaders who, like the chalutzim before us, can do remarkable things for the Jewish people. Because of them, Jews with and without disabilities, and those in Israel and North America, are coming together in new and stronger ways. It’s a vision that’s inspiring. Let’s hope it causes a trend.