We are at an Important Moment in Special Needs Advocacy

by Jay Ruderman

I’ve traveled from my home in Israel to L.A. this week to attend the North American Jewish Day School Conference, the foremost gathering for day school professionals across the many modes and denominations of Judaism. It was well worth the trouble.

Sponsored by the Solomon Schechter Day School Association, RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network, the Institute for University-School Partnership at Yeshiva University, and PARDeS: The Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools, this conference, now in its second year, has embraced an important agenda-setting role by making special needs education a priority item.

The focus on special needs at the North American Jewish Day School Conference is one more indication that a consensus is forming among Jewish educators, philanthropists and advocates that special needs deserves a higher profile on the communal agenda.

As another indication, last month The Ruderman Family Foundation joined with 13 other philanthropists to create a special needs funders group within The Jewish Funders Network.

This unusual coalition among major philanthropists will identify best practices in special needs education, as well as other essential components in the life of a person with special needs. We will study communities that have succeeded in caring for this population and share their successes with the Jewish community at large. A search has begun to hire a professional director to run the group.

These and other recent events point to a coalescing moment in the Jewish world for special needs and disabilities advocacy.

It’s fair to ask, why? The answer is simple: Almost every member of our community has a personal connection to someone with special needs: a child, grandchild, niece, nephew or neighbor. We are all connected to this population. And it is larger than might be supposed, with about 14% of the American Jewish community found in the special needs category according to our calculations.

Jewish day schools play an expanding and ever more central role in nurturing Jewish children into young adults who are fully engaged in the Jewish community. That aspiration and promise must be fully extended to special needs kids and their families.

Some may say that providing access to day school education for special needs children is too expensive and that those kids are better served by the public schools. But in fact, there is enough money, smart ideas and successful models to make it happen. Given the enhanced focus on special needs in Jewish organizational life, the time to act is now.

A few tips from a philanthropist’s perspective, then, for educators looking to engage funders like the Special Needs Funders Network in day school programming for special needs kids:

It’s important to understand that funders represent more than money. We are driven by our experience, passion and ideas. We’re connected to all kinds of people who can help you: political figures, corporate executives, entrepreneurs, academics and other funders.

  • When you meet with a prospective funder to discuss programs at your day school, take the time to listen to what they have to say before presenting a proposal. Find out what’s important to them and what drives their interest in special needs. Start to build a relationship and a dialogue. Help funders think big in a way that will impact the entire Jewish community.
  • Do not simply advocate for one day school over another. There are funders out there who have the ability and desire the help the entire community and the day school community as a whole.
  • When approaching a group of funders, bring them together to discuss a potential partnership. Don’t try to keep them separate. Don’t “handle” them and then toss everybody together for a last minute announcement.
  • Think in terms of long-term commitments rather than short-term projects.
  • Success with funders is all about building true partnerships based on mutual trust and a common vision. True partnerships can foster enduring change; false partnerships drain energy and resources and fall apart in a matter of time.
  • Look to the cross-denominational models like Boston’s successful Day School Initiative.
  • Use the federation or BJE to establish a central organization like Boston’s Gateways: Access to Jewish Education. Create a model that allows all partners – including funders – to have a say in the policies and the governance of the project.

Undeniably, there is a growing interest in special needs issues in our community. We need to strike while the iron is hot. The funding exists. There are successful models that can be followed and improved on. The will is there.

But the opportunity will be only fleeting if we don’t act now. If we don’t build new partnerships we will lose the moment and end up excluding our community’s special needs children from the Jewish education that all our children need and deserve.

Jay Ruderman is president of The Ruderman Family Foundation.