Expanding Opportunities and Inclusiveness for Israelis with Disabilities

by Jay Ruderman

Last week, some shocking statistics about the attitudes of the Israeli public to people with disabilities were released in a survey by AKIM, the National Association for the Habilitation of Children and Adults with Intellectual Disabilities. The survey noted that 52 percent of Israelis polled would prefer not to have contact with people with intellectual disabilities, and that 40 percent said that they would not want to be the neighbors of a person with an intellectual disability.

Maybe that’s because they never met or interacted with a person with a disability like Dalia Zilberman, the director of the Center for Independent Living for people with disabilities in Be'er Sheva. Though she is not a household name to most, for people with disabilities in Israel’s south who had been under rocket attack, she is a hero.

That’s because Dalia relocated the Center’s operations to her home during Operation Pillar of Defense, and together with her small staff, bravely worked non-stop to continue to serve the 3,000 people who rely every day on the Center. For the next eight days, they were responsible for the support and care that made life more bearable for an Israeli population that suffers enormously during wartime.

Dalia’s story is one of many from the advocacy revolution now occurring for adults with disabilities in Israel, our partners in the mission to make Israel and the Jewish community a more inclusive place. From the beginning, we at the Ruderman Family Foundation have focused on that goal, as well as on strengthening the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community.

When over a million Israelis and American Jews with disabilities are not able to fully engage in their communities—deprived of relationships, unable to participate in worship, and shut out of educational and employment opportunities—we have work to do. We began that work in Israel in 2009, when we joined with JDC and the Government of Israel to found Israel Unlimited, an innovative partnership to meet the needs of the more than 700,000 people with disabilities in Israel.

Israel Unlimited is the first and only comprehensive initiative in Israeli history that pairs the non-profit and government sectors in the effort to empower and grow opportunities for Israelis with disabilities. Israel Unlimited has expanded through an entrepreneurial approach, in which each partner sees its investment generating a very significant return. Indeed, the combined effort has opened doors for people with disabilities, given new meaning to lives, and created more fairness and equity in Israeli society. What return could be greater than that?

In a short period of time, we have reached tens of thousands of adults with disabilities and their families and have expanded services for Israelis with significant disabilities, including those who are homebound, through localized increases in services like transportation and home care.

We've focused on programs for Israeli Arabs and immigrants with disabilities. We've started initiatives to prevent violence against people with disabilities by family members or caregivers. And we’ve also launched a public program for Israelis with and without disabilities to collaborate on street performances and other events that demonstrate the challenges and positive contribution of people with disabilities.

Our Foundation’s commitment began with a $2 million grant, and that commitment is being renewed this month with a new $4 million grant. In total, this effort represents close to $20 million that will be dedicated to the inclusion of people with disabilities in Israel.

So what’s next?

We’re going to focus on employment opportunities for people with disabilities through JDC and the Government of Israel’s Tevet Employment Initiative. We’re going to ensure accessible housing and services that promote independent living, expand person-centered services, and focus on new groups like Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) with disabilities.

Additionally, we’re going to develop projects that help adults with disabilities cope with loneliness, and engage in new public awareness campaigns that will reinforce the overall message of inclusivity and acceptance of people with disabilities.

By bringing together three separate entities—with different perspectives, strengths, skill sets, and varied approaches to problem solving—we’ve built a strong and powerful team whose members share a common goal.

JDC, the Ruderman Family Foundation, and the Government of Israel can accomplish more working together in the cause of integrating Israelis with disabilities into the community than we could hope to accomplish working alone. We are stronger than the sum of our parts.

This is an exciting time for Israel Unlimited. It is poised to do far more great work by continuing to fight for the inclusion of Jews of all abilities. Join us to see what happens next.

Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation.  To learn more and to stay updated about the Foundation, follow its blog, Zeh Lezeh.

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