By Sharon Shapiro
Today, the Ruderman Family Foundation is well-known in the Greater Boston Area’s Jewish community, Israel, the world-wide Jewish community, and beyond as a prominent advocate for the full inclusion of people with disabilities. However, only twelve years ago, when we first became involved in philanthropy, I, along with the majority of my community, had no awareness of the challenges that people with disabilities faced. It wasn’t until we ventured into the field of special education through a grant to Boston’s Federation CJP (Combined Jewish Philanthropies), called the Day School Initiative, which created Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, that I began learning about the extent of exclusion in the Jewish community here.
Before Gateways existed, there was very little, if any, conversation about special needs inclusion in Jewish day schools. When we became visible in the field of inclusion, I would often hear from devastated parents who were being told, without any explanation, that their child didn’t belong in the day school they were attending. These parents struggled in small numbers trying to make a change in an educational landscape that simply didn’t know how to service their children. Many day schools would let students with disabilities enroll, only to later let the child and the family down.
As a consequence, many of these families then turned to South Area Solomon Schecter Day School, which was the only school back then that knew how to include kids with special needs and support their families. While the families were certainly glad to have a place where their child’s needs would be met, they did not leave the original day school of choice without feelings of exclusion. Typical learners were included there, but their child was not.
As Gateways entered many of the day schools, the conversation changed. Heads of schools, administrators, and teachers began to learn the importance of supporting students who had various learning disabilities. Many day schools expanded their Gateways services and often brought in their own professionals to make sure all of the students who needed support received it. Also, The Jim Joseph Foundation along with us at the Ruderman Family Foundation, brought B’yadanu into many of the schools to make a school-wide, inclusive change. Today, the stories I hear from parents sound very different from the devastating tone of exclusion. I am often told, if it wasn’t for Gateways services, my child would not have succeeded in his or her school, and “thank you for what you have done to help support my child.”
Even though I’ve seen this progress, we at the Ruderman Family Foundation don’t believe the struggle is over. Our newest project is a scholarship fund in memory of my Dad called the Morton E. Ruderman Inclusion Scholarship. This is a scholarship fund to help support day school students who need special needs services and attract new families who have children with learning disabilities to attend Jewish day schools.
We were happy to be making a difference in the day schools, however, we noticed that another major community institution was also not inclusive: our synagogues. We ventured into the synagogue inclusion arena a few years ago. The backdrop was different, but the stories of exclusion were essentially the same. I kept hearing from many people over the years who did not feel welcome at their synagogue of choice because their synagogue did not know how to include their family member with a disability. When these families felt turned away, they left their synagogue and often the Jewish community altogether.
We wanted to do something about this unfairness and in partnership with the CJP, we created the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion project. Through this initiative, we have partnered with 3 remarkable synagogues; Shaarei Tefillah, Beth Elohim and Temple Emunah who have incredible programs of including people with different abilities. These institutions are now fully accessible and are all about inclusion. I noticed that when a synagogue becomes more welcoming and inclusive to people with disabilities, people who did not bring their family members to synagogue before are now bringing them and there is an overt sense of warmth and inclusion for everyone. This project has been so successful that we will soon be adding additional synagogues the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion project. I look forward to hearing that all synagogues in the Greater Boston community want to be part of this important movement.
We have made remarkable strides in both day schools and synagogues over the years, but the program I find personally most rewarding is the Transitions to Work partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation, CJP and JVS (Jewish Vocational Services). Learning over the years that only 19% of young adults with disabilities are employed convinced us that vocational training is an area to focus on. I have met with many parents of young adults with disabilities who have been desperate to find their child meaningful employment for many years. Just visit one of the many Transitions to Work training sites and you will see a program run by professionals who understand how to work with the participants to help make them excellent, hardworking employees. Speak to one of the many employers who hired Transitions to Work graduates and you will find a high level of satisfaction and a high retention rate.
My favorite part of this program is attending the Transitions to Work graduations with the many parents and family members who are extremely grateful for the program and staff. After years of struggling to help their child find meaningful employment, they are often in tears when they finally realize that their child has found this success in the Transitions to Work program.
Throughout the past 12 years, I have personally witnessed the success of people with disabilities in day school education, synagogue life and employment because of the many programs the Ruderman Family Foundation has funded in the greater Boston community and beyond. It is the most rewarding feeling to hear from families that without Gateways, their child would never be able to be successful in his or her day school. Or see the joy of children and adults who feel welcome and included in their synagogue because of the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project at CJP. Each time I attend a Transitions to Work graduation I have had the opportunity to meet parents and family members of graduates who are so thankful their child has finally found a vocational program that understands their needs and helps them find jobs where they are supported and accommodated.
We are a foundation that works closely with our partners to help design fully inclusive programs. It is extremely rewarding to be active in our projects so we can fully appreciate the success our programs are having to empower people with disabilities and their families. My hope is that in the next 12 years our programs will put themselves out of business because organizations will make it part of their mission to be inclusive, and I hope that the greater philanthropic community will understand the value of including the twenty percent of our population who have disabilities in all of our community programming.
Sharon Shapiro is a Trustee at the Ruderman Family Foundation.
This post is part of a series from the Ruderman Family Foundation that coincides with Jewish Disability Awareness Month.