@URJ Biennial, Jay Ruderman: “Disabilities Is a Civil Rights Issue”

by Robert Evans and Avrum Lapin

In the weeks since the mid-December 2013 Biennial of the Reform Movement, there’s been plenty of discussion about how synagogues can develop new, more effective methods to make themselves more welcoming and accepting. At the same time, finding new and/or different approaches to attracting more households to affiliated congregations are (hopefully) uppermost in the minds of leaders and have become a major focus of congregational board room discussions. Yet, surprisingly to us, fundraising, which not only brings in critical financial support but is also a strong tool for building connections and love of Judaism, received less attention at the convention than it deserved.

Our observation about the full and extensive programming at the Biennial, one of the largest Jewish gatherings in North America with an estimated 5,000 attendees, mirrored congregational perspectives. Significant concerns abound regarding just who will make up and lead Reform congregations, but there are very few concentrated discussions taking place about ways to update, design and implement new ways to fund dynamic synagogue life.

We were happy to see the numerous sessions at the Biennial that highlighted approaches to attracting Jews with disabilities, Jews of varying ages, backgrounds and sexual orientations, and others who were looking to their congregations for myriad services historically not associated with congregations. URJ officials pointed with pride that this biennial was the first open to anyone, regardless of religious affiliations, and pointed with pride that seminar and discussion leaders were “bringing creativity to Jewish life.”

We note, however, that of more than 500 discrete and critical workshops and seminars in the packed five days of the URJ gathering, only a handful of meetings addressed firsthand fundraising and related issues!

But something came up at the Biennial that served as an example for congregations looking to both bolster their fundraising and serve a broader constituency. In emphasizing the pushing of “traditional” boundaries and removing barriers, URJ officials, too, highlighted a significant grant from one major foundation looking to address inclusion of people with disabilities. The Ruderman Family Foundation has as its goal to “influence the North American Jewish community regarding inclusion,” said Jay Ruderman, prominently highlighted throughout the biennial and an advocate for support for people with all types of disabilities and who spoke with us in a wide-ranging interview.

“This is a civil rights issue to mold as a central part of the Jewish community. Jewish philanthropists are interested in day schools, Birthright, camping – and we focus much attention on how we keep our kids Jewish,” he said. “However, twenty percent of our population has some type of disability, but we have been slow to be inclusive of this part of our community.”

Ruderman’s presence at the Biennial was sparked by a three-year, $600,000 grant his foundation made to URJ to challenge congregational leaders to change attitudes about inclusion and to be more sensitive going forward to the role of people with disabilities in their congregations. The URJ/Ruderman partnership was launched at the December gathering as an on-going program that will hopefully open the eyes, the hearts and the planning agendas of congregations across North America.

Transformation, Ruderman hopes, will come in the form of more programs as well as physical changes to Reform congregations to make them more accessible for people with a variety of disabilities. While social justice, he said, is at the heart of the Reform movement, the movement has been slow to address ways to welcome people with disabilities. He continued, contending that “our general society has moved further than the Jewish community on this issue.”

“We are all part of a team,” he said, “and I hope that in a good way, my presence at the Biennial and the support of our foundation has sparked new discussions and people with disabilities will see congregations today and in the future reaching out to them with open arms.”

Our highlighting the Ruderman Family Foundation’s attention to people with disabilities reflects how creative efforts by congregations can drive attention and priorities and attract financial support. With our synagogue clients, we try to inventory programs and services that could expand how people perceive their congregational membership and menu of programming and services. Recently, we have talked about initiatives for senior adults – sometimes in partnership with other Jewish agencies – or teen programs dealing with abuse, drugs, or alcohol. Funds become available, we have reminded clergy and Board members, when innovative and life-altering thinking and services become available.

We have found, too, that new ways of marketing Reform congregations open pathways for affiliation, and donors who have shied away from funding synagogues are changing their approaches. Perhaps the model of the Ruderman Family Foundation can serve as a leadership example in so many ways for others to emulate.

We welcome the opportunity to highlight other pace-setting donors whose generosity and foresight can make our synagogues a great resource for strengthening Jewish life.

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, a fundraising consulting firm located in suburban Philadelphia. They are frequent contributors to eJewishPhilanthropy.com. The EHL Consulting Group is one of only 38 member firms of The Giving Institute. EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and nonprofit business practices and strategies. Learn more at ehlconsulting.com

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