We’re Missing the Boat on Jewish Continuity

By Jay Ruderman

Most Jewish philanthropy that is focused on Jewish causes, such as trips to Israel, books to families, supporting Jewish education and summer camps, and the likes, is geared toward keeping our community Jewish and combatting assimilation. We can agree that to ensure the future of our culture, we have a vested interest in ensuring that our younger generations embrace their Jewish identities and are proud members of our community. However, if our goal is to have a vibrant, growing community, we cannot afford to exclude a fifth of our community – that is, all those of us with a disability. About 20% of our population has a disability and instead of ensuring that they are fully included, we alienate them and their families through segregated sub-minimum wage workshops, separate education programs and inaccessible synagogues.

This is not only wrong in and of itself, but the fact is that this kind of segregation alienates our younger generations. Younger people overwhelmingly embrace inclusion of all people and frown on segregation. If we stay comfortable with excluding a fifth of our community, our young people will turn away and find inclusive communities elsewhere. We cannot afford this loss of a fifth of our members, and with it the loss of our future.

On January 17, our Boston Mayor Marty Walsh delivered his State of the City address in which he made a powerful claim. He said, “At a time when cities must lead, Boston is the leader of cities.” If you don’t agree with him already, it is easy to dismiss such a statement as fancy rhetoric at best and self- aggrandizement at worst. While I can’t speak for the city as a whole, I can speak for Boston’s Jewish community. We have one of the most holistically inclusive communities in the country and offer a model that can, and should, be replicated in all cities.

These are unprecedentedly wealthy times for the Jewish community in the US and there is no reason that community leaders working together can’t transform their locale into an area that embraces inclusion. Collaboration was the first step to our journey as well.

Twelve years ago we partnered with Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) to ensure that Jewish day schools in our area became inclusive through our Initiative for Day School Excellence. Unlike public schools, private day schools are not by law obliged to be inclusive and offer education to students with learning disabilities, or any other disabilities. This meant that if a family wanted to give their child a Jewish education, if that child had a disability, they would be facing a lack of support and in some cases, a lack of welcome. If you exclude children from our schools, you exclude their families from our community. This simply is not a way we strengthen our communities. Quite the opposite.

However, Jewish education is of course only one aspect of our lives. To create truly inclusive communities, we have to think holistically and across a person’s full life span. This is also why we collaborated with CJP as well as Jewish Vocational Services (JVS) to create our Transitions to Work – an initiative that provides effective, hands-on training for young adults with disabilities to become gainfully employed in a competitive job market. We have to date partnered with over 75 employers in our area. This approach is crucial because similarly to education, there are not many, and sometimes not any, support systems for young adults with disabilities who have graduated school, but don’t necessarily have the skills, or social skills for employment. According to the latest U.S. Department of Labor statistics, only 20% of people with disabilities participate in the labor market. That means that 80% of people with disabilities are unemployed.

The exclusion that occurs without gainful employment is not only a financial one. For most of us, our work is where we socialize with others, forge friendships, and find a sense of meaning. It is absolutely imperative that communities practice inclusive hiring to strengthen the cohesion and productivity of all its members, while also strengthening the local businesses who benefit from loyal and competent talents they would have missed out on otherwise.

And of course we couldn’t have achieved a holistic approach to inclusion without ensuring that our synagogues valued all members of our community equally. In partnership with CJP, we launched the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project where we’ve created a network of synagogues committed to sharing innovative inclusion approaches that enable all members of our Jewish community and their families to attend services and fully participate. Our project includes synagogues from all denominations; after all, there is no group of people that does not include people with disabilities.

Statistically nearly all of us will become disabled at some point in our life. People with disabilities make up the largest minority in our country. It simply does not make sense to not fully include this huge segment of our population in all of our social milestones and life stages. So I challenge all Jewish communities to ensure that we live in accordance with our Jewish values and transform our communities into beacons of inclusion. For cities to lead, communities need to lead first.

Jay Ruderman is President of the Ruderman Family Foundation.