By Jay Ruderman
On Tuesday, ADVANCE: The Ruderman Jewish Special Needs Funding Conference served as a vivid reminder that while progress has been made on the goal of inclusion for those in our community with disabilities, much hard work remains. As funders from across the Jewish world, we came together to advance the inclusion of our people with disabilities, moving it onto the front burner for the funders who set our community’s priorities and agendas.
And, from everything we heard that day, we recognize that “Maybe someday,” “Let someone else do that,” or even “Great idea but not in the budget” can’t be an answer – or an excuse — any longer.
Tuesday’s conference built on the foundation laid at last year’s ADVANCE and the Jewish Special Needs Funders Network, a new peer network run through the Jewish Funders Network. One theme ran throughout so many of this year’s presentations, panels and round tables at New York’s Baruch College: We are all part of a community – professionally and personally — and when we work together, great things happen.
Actress Marlee Matlin put a face on this truth when she shared her experience growing up deaf supported by her community, allowing her to define her life not through her disability but through her hopes, dreams and community. From her family, then her synagogue and rabbi, and finally from her mentor, actor Henry Winkler, she was primed for a success unheard of for actors with a disability.
We all came away from her moving story inspired and even more determined to bring our Jewish community together to enable the success of so many more people with disabilities who may not have the support that Marlee did.
As the Jewish community begins to focus on this sacred task, the point made clear by so many speakers was that people with disabilities have all kinds of strengths and skills, and boundless contributions to make — to the workforce, to Jewish institutions, to community life. Those contributions must be nurtured. In addition, we met many people with disabilities and their families who made it abundantly clear that inviting people with disabilities into Jewish life, including through a Jewish education and synagogue participation, has to be a top priority for all of us.
Though we can celebrate the strides we have made – more synagogues have ramps, more communities are beginning to offer Jewish special education, there are increased housing and employment opportunities — what remains desperately needed is a greater acceptance of people with disabilities as important members of our family, our people and our future.
In the words of Special Olympics head Tim Shriver, what we need is “a dignity revolution.” And, as Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ Barry Shrage remarked in the wrap-up panel, as inheritors of the Jewish tradition, we can do nothing less than be responsible for each other (Zeh lezeh).
It was a day that set us strongly on the path we as the organized Jewish world need to blaze to be truly responsible for each other. I look forward to working alongside all of you as we take this momentum to the next level.
— Jay Ruderman