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Philanthropist Jay Ruderman leads new push to help disabled

Jay Ruderman, speaking at Advance: The Ruderman Jewish Special Needs Funding Conference at Baruch College in New York, said that focusing on disabilities and special needs "is a justice issue, it's a Jewish issue and it's all of our issue," Dec. 6, 2011.  (Marian Goldman/Jewish Funders Network)

Jay Ruderman, speaking at Advance: The Ruderman Jewish Special Needs Funding Conference at Baruch College in New York, said that focusing on disabilities and special needs “is a justice issue, it’s a Jewish issue and it’s all of our issue,” Dec. 6, 2011. (Marian Goldman/Jewish Funders Network)

NEW YORK (JTA) — A parent with a child who is deaf; a sister with a learning disabled brother.

The most outspoken advocates for people with special needs tend to be those who became active because of a personal connection to the issue.

That’s not the case for Jay Ruderman, who works tirelessly to improve the lives of those with disabilities. As president of the Boston-based Ruderman Family Foundation, he helps funnel his family’s considerable wealth toward programs that integrate the disabled into American Jewish life and Israeli society.

Special needs, Ruderman insists, is not an issue that concerns only those with a personal stake — a point he stressed at Advance: The Ruderman Jewish Special Needs Funding Conference, the second-ever gathering of disability philanthropists.

“Focusing on disabilities and special needs as a special interest alone leaves us all the poorer,” Ruderman said during his remarks. “This is a justice issue, it’s a Jewish issue and it’s all of our issue.”

The Dec. 6 event drew some 150 participants to the Baruch College Conference Center here with the goal of creating partnerships and raising the profile of special needs inclusion within the Jewish world. The room was a veritable cross-section of the Jewish community: young and old, observant and not, lay leaders and Jewish communal professionals. The positive energy was palpable as colleagues from across America and Israel relished the opportunity to connect face to face.

Ruderman, 45 and somewhat boyish despite the flecks of salt in his close-cropped beard, exudes a pleasant calm amid the buzz. Speaking to a reporter he is affable and on-message, clearly seasoned in dealing with the media. His demeanor is both passionate and genuine, even as he tells anecdotes he has shared before.

“It’s a good, good crowd,” said Ruderman, surveying the room.

When the Ruderman Family Foundation — along with the Jewish Funders Network, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston — convened the first Advance Conference last year, “I thought we’d have maybe 50 funders,” he said. But more than 100 showed up — a clear sign that Ruderman and his partners had tapped into an unmet need.

Approximately 18 percent of Israel’s population has some form of disability, and estimates indicate a similar percentage within the American Jewish community, Ruderman said. Ruderman’s nephew was diagnosed with autism.

“It brought us emotionally closer to the issue,” he said. “It wasn’t theoretical; it was personal.”

Even with many people knowing someone who is disabled — and perhaps becoming disabled themselves at some point in their lives — conference attendees said the organized Jewish community doesn’t do enough to reach the disabled.

The Rudermans, however, are walking the walk. One successful project, launched seven years ago, allows special needs children access to Jewish day schools throughout Boston.

In a more recent endeavor, the foundation provided a $2.5 million grant to the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston that provides customized job training and ongoing support for young adults with disabilities. Known as Young Adult Transitions to Work and run by Jewish Vocational Services, the program places its participants in jobs at Hebrew SeniorLife.

The challenges facing the community are diverse, from making summer camps wheelchair accessible to offering sign language interpreters at synagogues. Finding common ground among funders was another theme of the conference, along with the notion that such collaboration takes time and patience.

Case in point: Last year’s conference led to the creation of the Disability Peer Network, a group of 16 funders committed to the cause that is being incubated at the Jewish Funders Network. It’s been a slow process, though a director was recently hired.

“We’re talking about funders who are diverse in size, geographic location and interest,” Ruderman said.

Ultimately the goal is to work together on projects. For now, Ruderman says, “the idea is to get to know each other, network, advance the field.”

Indeed, the shared interests of the group is what sets it apart from many of the Jewish community’s most high-profile projects and philanthropists. 

“In the interest of Jewish continuity, they run after what they consider the best and the brightest,” Ruderman said. “While doing that, they put aside the people in need who really want to be part of the community. That might be because it’s more expensive, or more complicated, but if we just focus on the best and the brightest, we’re not much of a Jewish community.”

This sense of communal responsibility is a lesson Ruderman says he learned from his father, the late Morton Ruderman, founder of the health care technology firm Meditech.

He was a “very emotional, very caring person,” Ruderman said. “My father was all about helping people in need.”

The elder Ruderman also impressed upon his son the importance of applying business principles to the family’s philanthropic efforts.

“The way you are going to be successful, to have the most impact, is to be able to partner and connect with others who have similar interests,” Ruderman recalls his father telling him.

It’s a lesson Ruderman has taken to heart: In 2009, in partnership with the JDC and the Israeli government, he launched Israel Unlimited, a four-year, $6 million program aimed at integrating those with special needs into Israeli society.

As for business acumen, his father again was an invaluable teacher, as Ruderman’s professional background is in law and politics. Ruderman graduated from the Boston University School of Law and began his career as an assistant district attorney in Salem, Mass. But he grew restless after five years in the position and in 2000, he took time off and enrolled in an ulpan in Israel.

It was a trip that changed the course of his life. There he met his wife, Shira, and upon returning to the U.S. he became the deputy director of AIPAC’s New England office.

The Rudermans moved to Israel in 2005, where he did a stint with the Israeli army, serving as a liaison between the military and Diaspora Jews. Ruderman then became the leadership director at AIPAC’s Jerusalem office before assuming the presidency of his family’s foundation three years ago.

In another “like father, like son” trait, Ruderman admits to being a workaholic, though he says his unique position working in both Israel and the U.S. is partially to blame. After saying Kaddish for his father, who passed away in October, his workday begins at 8 or 9 a.m., and he often makes site visits to the foundation’s projects throughout Israel.

“Then, around 3:30 or 4, I begin my work on the phone with our programs in the U.S.,” he says. “I used to be on the phone until midnight until my wife told me to stop that.”

With four children at home in Rehovot — they range in age from 3 to 8 — quitting time is now around 7. Still, he confesses, “I consider myself addicted to e-mail.”

At the moment, however, Ruderman’s mobile device is tucked away and attention is concentrated on the conference, its goals and new ways to honor his father’s legacy. Launching that day was the Ruderman Prize in Disability, a worldwide competition that will offer a total of $200,000 to up to 10 organizations that serve the disabled in the Jewish community.

“It’s gratifying, but I also want to remain cognizant that this is not about us,” he adds. “We’re providing some leadership, but we’re bringing together people who had not come together before. Together, if we can set aside our egos and find common ground, I think we can change the community.”

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