‘Let’s Build a More Inclusive Community’: Jay Ruderman’s Call to Action

By Jacob Kamaras

The Ruderman Family Foundation is known for its work to advance the inclusion of people with disabilities, but at the 2014 General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the foundation’s president used the concept of inclusion to issue a broader challenge to the Jewish community.

“I think that we look at people and we label them very quickly,” Jay Ruderman told me Nov. 11 on the stage of the GA’s “press pit,” a section of the exhibition hall where conference attendees got the chance to listen to journalists interview various Jewish leaders. “[We’ll say] ‘You’re in a wheelchair,’ or ‘you’re a different color,’ or ‘you have a different orientation.’ And that’s not what we should be about. We should be about saying, ‘Okay. You’re Jewish. You identify Jewishly, and we’re all in this together, and let’s figure out how to build a big tent.’”

In addition to disability issues, the Ruderman Family Foundation – which has offices in Boston and Israel – prioritizes fostering a more nuanced understanding of the American Jewish community among Israelis and modeling the practice of strategic philanthropy worldwide. The following is a condensed version of my interview with Jay Ruderman at the GA.

What would you fix about the Jewish community?

“Most Jewish philanthropy is given Jewishly. Jewish organizations are mainly focused on ensuring continuity. So if you’re looking at Jewish day schools, or Jewish camping, or trips to Israel, it’s all about the same thing: How do we engage younger Jews to be connected to our Jewish community? Which makes sense, and that’s a laudable goal. But what we’re not doing a good job at is including people on the fringes of our society – people with disabilities, the gay and lesbian community, intermarried families, Jews living in poverty. There are all sorts of groups that are excluded from our community. First of all, I don’t think that that’s a great value system for the Jewish community. But furthermore, young Americans already live in a more inclusive society, and if you build a Jewish community that looks like a country club that excludes a bunch of people, I think you’re going to turn off the very people that you’re trying to attract. So [our foundation is] out there talking to fellow philanthropists, talking to Jewish organizations, [saying] ‘Let’s build a more inclusive community that represents Jewish values of fairness, and in the process going to build a community that’s more attractive to younger generations.”

During the controversy surrounding the recent report about a senior Obama administration official called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “chickenshit,” your foundation instead focused on another insult of Netanyahu mentioned in the same report – “Aspergery,” derived from Asperger syndrome. What does this usage of a disability insult teach us about the power of language?

“First of all, our point when this whole story came out is based on the premise that it’s true, that someone said it. I believe someone said it, I don’t believe Jeffrey Goldberg would have written it if someone hadn’t said it. I don’t know who said it. In any case, the point is that people can’t use terms of disability in a derogatory manner. And we do it all the time. When I read the [Atlantic magazine] article, it jumped out at me. Like what is this? Aspergery? How could you use a disability that millions of people live with and try to put someone down that way? But we do it all the time when we talk to people. [We say] ‘What are you blind?’ ‘Are you deaf?’ And you hear this all the time. It’s not correct. There’s been a huge campaign that’s been going on for years not to use the word ‘retarded.’ And that’s been a successful campaign. And especially younger people in our society, they know that these terms are not okay, it’s not cool to talk that way. So that was our point [in responding to the ‘Aspergery’ insult]. Obviously the disability community picked up on it, and I have to give credit to the Jewish community, they also picked up on it.”

Most observers focus on the U.S.-Israel relationship from the perspective of the two governments. But what don’t the broader Israeli and American civilian populations understand about each other?

“If people know about our work, they probably know about the issue of disabilities and inclusion, in Israel and the United States. However, I’ve been living in Israel for eight years, and through my experience at AIPAC and my experience on my own meeting political figures, ministers, Members of Knesset, I came to the realization that when I would speak to them about the American Jewish population and how important the population is, to Israel and Israel’s security, they didn’t really understand the community I was talking about, and they frankly didn’t really care. Israel is a very self-focused society and they care about things that happen in Israel, and there are things happening in Israel every single moment. But this community here, the American Jewish community, they don’t really understand all that well. Anyone who has spent time in both countries realizes that they’re completely different societies. In Israel, there’s no separation between church and state, there’s a Rabbanut. The Reform and Conservative movements, and other ways of connecting to Judaism, they’re represented but they’re not widespread throughout society. So what we’ve begun to do [at the foundation] is educate Israeli leaders. We’ve been bringing Knesset members to the United States, bringing journalists, and talking to them about the American Jewish community – the pluralism of the community, how there are all different ways of observance, synagogue life, and the younger generations of the Americans and how their connection to Israel may be changing. Because the work that the Jewish community has done with the American government to ensure support of Israel is critical, in my opinion, for Israel’s survival. If younger Jews are not connected in the same way, that’s a security issue for Israel, and Israelis by and large are not focused on that issue.”

What are the most important current trends in philanthropy, and how should the Jewish community adapt?

“I’m not sure the old model of giving to a centralized organization to support the community is going to be that popular moving forward. I think people are looking for a more entrepreneurial entrance to philanthropy and looking to sort of control the way their giving is done and see the impact, and be more hands-on. We work very well with [Jewish] federations. We have major partnerships in Boston on the issue of inclusion in Jewish day schools, on employing young people with disabilities, on making our synagogues more inclusive. We have a major partnership with JFNA in placing interns, people with disabilities in federations around North America. I still believe that I represent a family that has four individuals. I don’t represent the entire Jewish community. So if I want to work on the issues that are important to us, then we have to connect with the Jewish community, and right now federations hold that position. However, I think that federations have to build these partnerships with foundations. And one of the things, quite frankly, that we should put on the table is that significant wealth and philanthropy, people who are billionaires and multi-billionaires, are going to be setting the agenda of the Jewish community. And my personal belief is that they have an obligation to be public about what they’re doing, to explain what they’re doing, and to find a way to connect to the community.”