Disabilities Inclusion Champion Pioneers Groundbreaking Israel Initiative

December 13, 2011


Jay Ruderman is a longtime advocate for the inclusion of people with disabilities in his native Boston and his current home, the State of Israel. Through his leadership of the Ruderman Family Foundation, he promotes the rights of people with disabilities in the Jewish community and works to strengthen the relationship between Israeli leaders and American Jews.

The Ruderman Family Foundation partnered with JDC and the Israeli Government in 2009 to create Israel Unlimited—a national initiative to meet the needs of Israel’s 700,000 adults with disabilities (17.9% of the population) and improve their ability to live independently and integrate into Israeli society.

More than halfway into the program, Jay discusses its successes, challenges, and his steadfast vision for the future.

JDC:Israel Unlimited runs extensive community services for people with physical, sensory, emotional, and cognitive disabilities, as well as individuals with chronic health problems that cause functional impairment. What initially inspired your activism for people with disabilities?

JR: Originally the Ruderman Foundation made a commitment to Jewish day school education in Boston, but very quickly we realized that children with special needs did not share in the opportunity. We became concerned with this was an issue of fairness: Why should some children have the advantage of a Jewish education but others—sometimes in the same family—be denied it?

Ironically, after a few years of working on the issue, it became that much more personal to me when one of my nephews was diagnosed with autism.

JDC: Given your prominent work on inclusion issues in the US, how did you get involved in the work in Israel?

JR: We wanted to go from impacting a major Jewish community in the United States to being able to effect change on a national level in Israel.

We partnered with the Joint [JDC], which is an extremely professional organization and committed to making sure funders get the most impact for their philanthropic dollars. We were lucky to have the opportunity to found an initiative as partners and take the lead on the inclusion issue in Israel.

JDC: How did the innovative Israel Unlimited partnership emerge and who was involved? What do you see as JDC’s role in the program?

JR: Our Foundation approached this initiative as an investment for which we provided participation as an entrepreneurial partner. JDC offered the expertise and research on the needs in Israel, and also brought in the government to bring the program’s innovation and inclusivity to a new level. The Joint’s expertise was required to make the partnership with the Israeli government work.

Israel Unlimited marks the first time that a private foundation has sat at a table with the Joint and the Israeli government in the field of disabilities.

Our Foundation is very entrepreneurial in the way we approach raising awareness and changing public attitudes, which we see as integral to the program being really successful. Our investment was matched and will most likely be expanded from an initial four-year financial commitment to a program continuously operated by the government that grows and evolves to meet the needs of the community.

Today the Board of Israel Unlimited includes a wide variety of stakeholders, including the Treasury Department, which ensures that the model programs are integrated within governmental policy and sustained by the government when the developmental stage is over.

JDC: As an advocate you’ve frequently said, “Government needs to give a little [to people with disabilities] to get a lot.” What do you see as the government’s role in ensuring inclusion of people with disabilities?

JR: Society tends to see first the disability and then the person. And though society wants to provide special services for people with disabilities, they are very costly. Government needs to step in and find the funds because equal opportunity is what we should be about as a people.

People with disabilities have to deal with discrimination as well as a financial impact. It is up to us to be a better society and include them in all aspects of life, including education, employment, and health care.

JDC: How have you seen the program grow and develop since its start?

JR: We are at the half-way point now and Israel Unlimited has taken on a variety of innovative projects, from Supportive Communities that give people the care they need to live independently in their own homes to special accessible Ulpans (Hebrew language learning programs for new immigrants) that allow people to really engage in Israeli society.

We have learned from different ministries that the Israeli government approaches groups of people by the type of disability that they have, which often leaves wide gaps for people with multiple disabilities or those whose issues are not well defined.

We’ve been able to see a better picture of what the needs are, and what the opportunities could be. Whatever isn’t yet being addressed by the government is a space for something new and innovative.

Investing in the Joint is investing in knowledge, history, and an institution with the power to work with Israel’s government to make society better. Our Foundation believes strongly in the relationship we have developed with the Joint. That’s why we made the investment. Now other funders are showing interest in this area, and it is very exciting to imagine how the initiative can grow.

Many of the benefits probably won’t be known until well into the future but the potential is tremendous.

JDC: Israel Unlimited works to integrate and enable people with disabilities to live rich, fulfilled, and independent lives. What success story has particularly stuck with you?

JR: Through the Centers for Independent Living, the confidence and the self-esteem that people gain from being linked into a network, a job market, a social scene, is transformational. People who were previously prisoners in their homes come out into the world!

I remember being in a neighborhood in the south of Israel where I was going to pay a visit to a homebound person in a walk-up. We saw some kids playing in the street and asked them if they knew the person and they said, “no.” When neighbors don’t even know you’re there, when there’s no one to bring you medicine or help you fix a broken faucet—let alone offer you human contact or friendship—that’s when you are truly invisible.

But people with disabilities make up 18% of Israeli society. They should be included…and we’re seeing tremendous progress in that direction.

JDC: When you speak generally about the trend of people with disabilities and employment, you reference the ’win-win-win’ between employers, people with disabilities, and the government: “Many employers have seen their relatively small investment repaid in spades, with loyal and dependable workers who in many cases outpace those employees without disabilities. It is truly a win-win-win: Employers get good workers, individuals achieve independence and a new measure of confidence, and the government, over time, sees more tax revenue and less dependence on disability benefits.” What such example have you seen in the field?

JR: In our work in Boston, we were initially focused on young kids but with time we began to think about what was happening to them after they graduated. Young people with disabilities in their 20s often must confront loneliness and limited or no job opportunities. So we partnered with our local Federation (CJP—Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston), Jewish Vocational Services, and Hebrew Senior Life (a provider of senior housing and services), and decided we would take a new approach.

Rather than providing general skills training, we asked our employment partner, Hebrew Senior Life, what skills they needed in new workers. We then began training 20-somethings with disabilities in those specific skills so that we could place them in viable employment there. The program has just begun, but we expect that there will be many new jobs created for people with disabilities, and perhaps almost as important, interactions between the elderly and the employees that will be mutually gratifying.

JDC: Back in Israel, Israel Unlimited is already helping thousands of people with disabilities and their families live independently in their homes, become activists for accessibility and community involvement, provide support services for their disabled peers, and much more. What are your goals for the partnership’s remaining year and a half?

JR: I see the initiative as a work in progress. The pilot projects have spread throughout the country and we can look at different levels of success: how much government money comes in, what other funders come in, and what new avenues for partnership have emerged. I focus on the funding community because that’s what I know and because other funders can help expand the impact.

Our efforts are entrepreneurial, which makes philanthropy exciting. We are investing and we are privileged to be involved in changing our society for the better.

JDC: ADVANCE 2011: The Ruderman Jewish Special Needs Conference just took place and you’ve expressed great excitement about being “the incubator for ideas that will lead to better and more effective services.” Who was the conference for and what kind of exchanges did it facilitate?

JR: ADVANCE brought together funders, experts from the field of disability, and community leaders to share information and learn from each other, and transform the way communities serve the needs of adults and children with disabilities.

We are facing an overwhelming challenge with this issue, in terms of cost, complexity, etc. We will have no real impact if we operate individually. ADVANCE brought together major funders and partners, including CJP, the Joint, JFN, and JFNA, because we all need to work together to have a greater social impact.

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