Looking Back to Look Forward

ruderman-logoBy Jay Ruderman

We at the Ruderman Family Foundation have two key missions – the full inclusion of people with disabilities, and the strengthening of the relationship between Israel and the US Jewish community – though we’ve been engaged with the former focus for a longer time. Now after more than a decade of concentrated work in the area of inclusion, we felt it was time to evaluate the extent of our impact. In the spirit of Passover and the spirit of transparency, we opened our doors and windows for a thorough assessment of all our initiatives in the U.S., as well as in Israel in order to make us better and stronger. As the evaluation states, we commissioned our researchers “to collect data in interviews and surveys of high-visibility leaders, as well as board members, staff and participants in national and regional institutions in Jewish philanthropy, education, community and religious life.” The results were insightful and have both humbled us as well as informed our next moves.

Overall I am very proud that according to the research, the Foundation has succeeded in four key areas: “building awareness, taking action, achieving changes in the lives of people with disabilities and the institutions that affect them, and sustaining improvement over time.” If I am honest, this is more than I could have wished for. But of course we could not have accomplished this sustained and substantial impact without the hard work and dedication of our many grantees and partners.

I am very grateful to the remarkable men and women who work closely with us in order to make our society a more inclusive place for everyone. As a Foundation with a strong vision, we are quite hands-on when it comes to the programs we develop with our grantees. We demand much from our programs, initiatives, and by extension our grantees and partners. This is where I have to acknowledge that we, of course, have room to improve. I have learned that it is unusual for a funder to be as hands-on as we have been and that in our approach particularly, our lines of communication have not always been as clear as they could have been. Moving forward we fully intend to foster much more open communication about our vision, our grantees’ vision, and how to better collaborate on our collective mission.

Thanks to the evaluation we also learned that there is a gap between what we would like to accomplish and what our programs are really great at accomplishing. Our programs, both in the U.S. and in Israel largely focus on offering direct services, such as access to education – with Gateways Access to Jewish Education – or employment for example – through Transitions to Work in collaboration with Jewish Vocational Services (JVS) and Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), or several other innovative, direct services including housing and employment through Israel Unlimited, in partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the State of Israel. These programs, as well as our partnerships with various religious movements (Union for Reform Judaism [URJ], United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism [USCJ], Chabad Lubavitch, and Yachad [Orthodox Union]) improve the lives of specific individuals through inclusion and we want to continue to do that. However, another big part of our vision is advocacy. We believe that through advocacy we can expose society in general to the need for inclusion.

And I believe the best way to do this is to advocate on an international scale and tirelessly for the full inclusion of people with disabilities as well as develop a broad-based network of individuals whose collective voice will amplify the need for inclusion. We are currently building this network in Israel with plans to do so in the United States this year. It is crucial to disseminate information and educate those not already within the disability community on the need and the benefits of an inclusive society. In this regard we have found that our partners are frequently not equipped to do large-scale and consistent advocacy and outreach. After all, that is not the main focus of their work, but rather, their focus is providing inclusive services.

This is why the Ruderman Family Foundation has now developed an in-house advocacy team whose main focus is precisely what the name implies. We are beginning to leverage our resources and experience to create original content – like the Ruderman White Paper that exposed the lack of media coverage of disability in instances of law enforcement violence – and spread our message of inclusion farther than before. Our hope for the next decade is that more and more organizations, more media, and simply more people will join this civil rights movement for equality for people with disabilities. After all, it is fundamentally unfair that our community systematically excludes 20% of our population – which is the percentage of people with disabilities – from all aspects of our communal life.

And perhaps the biggest change we are looking at as we prepare to move into our next decade, is that we will expand our advocacy and partnership efforts into the secular community as well. It seems we have truly made an impact in the Jewish community and the State of Israel and we feel prepared now to move into the world in general. However, this is definitely not an exodus from the Jewish community. We will continue to be strongly active within our home community even as we journey beyond.

Jay Ruderman is the president of the Ruderman Family Foundation. He can be reached on Twitter @jayruderman.