Category Archives: Initiatives

Celebrate An Inclusive Israel


by: Jay Ruderman

Today and tomorrow highlight life in Israel: Tragedy and triumph. Today is Israel’s Memorial Day, where we remember and shed tears for the 25,578 people who fell in defense of the country. Tomorrow we rejoice as we celebrate Israel’s 65th Independence Day, the amazing rebirth of the Jewish people in the Jewish homeland.

Our foundation is proud to have Israel as a base of activities. Over the last five years, we have worked tirelessly towards the full inclusion of all Israeli citizens with disabilities into society. The latest studies estimate that there are approximately 1,000,000 people of working age with disabilities living in Israel- there is much work still to be done.


One program we are proud of is the AKIM program to allow youth with intellectual disabilities the ability to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Here is part of what we wrote when we awarded them the 2012 Ruderman Prize in Disability last year:

“For most young Israelis, service in the IDF is a normal part of life in the years between high school and college. Service becomes a core rite of passage in Israeli society and an empowering, transformative experience. AKIM is working now to make that experience open to people with intellectual disabilities, enabling them to perform significant supportive and productive tasks as part of IDF service. This project works with both the individual and the rest of the military unit to maximize adjustment and success.

Ultimately, inclusive IDF service will instill a sense of achievement and pride in all people with intellectual disabilities in Israel.”

The program has been a success- the soldiers with disabilities adapted well and the benefits for both the soldiers and the army were very evident. The IDF has now proposed to initiate a recruitment process in order to offer civil positions within the army and opportunity of permanent enlistment in the standing army to the released soldiers with disabilities.

As Israel moves forward, we will continue to impact and  strengthen Israeli society, a society which will become fully inclusive and everyone can contribute.

Read our last post: Thinking About Siblings


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Thank You!

JayRuderman244 and  41. Those two numbers amaze me.

Our foundation announced the 2013 Ruderman Prize in Disability eligibility guidelines 5 weeks ago and on Monday, the applications process ended. When I awoke Tuesday morning, I was astounded: 244 applications were submitted, a 41% increase over last year! From Cambodia, South Africa, Canada, Argentina, France, USA, Israel, Russia, UK, Brazil and more.

A thank you to our many partners who helped spread the word to as many Jewish communities as possible so we can recognize the fine work being performed by local organizations. I am encouraged that there are so many innovative programs around the world working towards the full inclusion of people with disabilities in Jewish communal life.

I want to personally thank everyone who took the time to fill out the application and share with us how you are making your community more inclusive. Now the hard part for our staff begins: Choosing only 5 winners from among a pool of very worthy candidates.

This initiative is meant to recognize past work in inclusion. There is still much work to be done so that every person with a disability feels welcome in his/her community. But seeing so many people around the world dedicated to this issue gives me hope that we are on the right path to full inclusion.

– Jay

Read our last post: But Words CAN Hurt Me!


Filed under General News, Initiatives

Cooking Up Employment Opps

JayRudermanWe are proud to support Transitions to Work, in collaboration with Combined Jewish Philanthropies and Jewish Vocational Service (JVS). They work to train and help young adults with disabilities enter the workforce while simultaneously engaging the corporate and business community to increase employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

Here’s a wrap up of a program that just ended. It is great to see how everyone benefited- participants and their mentors.
– Jay

Five Transitions to Work participants recently graduated from a three month training program at Whitsons School of Nutrition in the Newton, MA North High School. The participants received classroom instruction in job readiness issues and gained hands-on work experience and training. The work included customer service, food preparation, food portioning and back of the house support positions.


“Thank you so much for letting us come in and do this work. Whitsons helped us use different types of tools. When we get a job somewhere and they ask us if we have used those tools, now we can say yes,” said Josh, a participant who spoke at the graduation. “I seriously like Whitsons and its people more than anything and will never forget. They are very superb and helpful… I like how we are able to work together and always ask when we had any problems. I also liked learning how to use the grill, serve food, and food prep from all of the Whitsons Staff.”

Everyone agreed it was a win-win experience for all. The program was not only highly beneficial for the participants but also for the Whitsons employees. Micah Fleisig, the Transitions to Work Employment Specialist for JVS, applauded Whitsons commitment to individuals with disabilities and to the Transitions to Work participant: “Due to the staff, chef and administration, Whitsons has been a wonderful work site for our interns. I have been completely impressed with the balance of mentoring and compassion with their professionalism and productivity.”

April Liles, Food Service Director – Newton Public Schools Whitsons School Nutrition, is a big supporter of the program. April mentioned that Whitsons saw this experience as an opportunity to partner with the community and it turned out better than even anticipated. The participants arrived every day, on time, eager to work and learn, and became members of the team. “The experience was amazing for Whitsons, the participants, and all involved. We would do it again in a heartbeat”.

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Filed under Disabilities rights, Employment of People with Disabilities, Initiatives

Mitzvah Mensches: Inclusive Social Action for Teens


Periodically we offer you glimpses into excellent and innovative inclusion programs from all corners of the Jewish community. Today I’m happy to bring you a post about a wonderful program run by Gateways, a Boston organization with which my family has been deeply involved since its inception.

It can be hard to get teen inclusion programs right, but we believe Mitzvah Mensches has done just that. I hope this inspires you to think about starting your own inclusive philanthropy and social action program—or tell us about the one you already have.

–Jay Ruderman

Mitzvah Mensches: Inclusive Social Action for Teens

By Nancy Mager, Gateways: Access to Jewish Education

Jewish Disability Awareness Month highlights the issue of inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of Jewish life. Here in Boston, Gateways has a teen youth initiative – Mitzvah Mensches – that strives to include teens with disabilities in meaningful Jewish extracurricular activities.

Mitzvah Mensches is an inclusive teen youth group fostering young philanthropists. We create a social life through social action.  Teens join Mitzvah Mensches for a variety of reasons– but one thing is for sure: they all think it’s fun, they all feel like they belong, and they all have a voice that is heard and counted.

The overt curriculum at Mitzvah Mensches is about philanthropy and social action. Teens tell us what they are interested in and we find charities that are aligned with their interests. As a group, we learn about the charities in fun and creative ways. Sometimes, it looks like formal learning (reading and writing, or watching a video about an organization), but often we incorporate games and team challenges into the evening. The games have a secondary (covert) purpose: through them, we work on social skills and building relationships among the participants.

As an inclusive program, some of the Mensches have disabilities and others do not. A diagnosis or disability is not so important. What is important is that the teens make connections with one another. In the beginning of the year, the teens may feel they do not share interests or have much in common, but as the year progresses and the program creates unique shared experiences, the teens bond and have things to talk about.  Eventually those connections grow stronger and friendships are forged.

Now in its eighth year, the group meets twice a month during the school year and includes students with and without disabilities.

So, while wonderful activities, posts and celebrations of awareness carry on during Jewish Disability Awareness Month, the teens of Mitzvah Mensches will be celebrating a slightly different agenda: acceptance, individuality, and inclusion of all.

Nancy Mager is the Director of Jewish Education Programs at Gateways: Access to Jewish Education. She can be reached at

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What Do You Value in Jewish Life?


Today I’m pleased to bring you a post by one of the founders of Jewish Disability Awareness Month, Shelly Christensen.  Shelly has been in the forefront of the Jewish inclusion movement for many years.  Here she offers ideas for examining our own feelings and assumptions about Judaism and disability—an important exercise for each of us, this month and all year.

–Jay Ruderman

What Do You Value in Jewish Life?

By Shelly Christensen, Founder of Inclusion Innovations, and co-founder of Jewish Disability Awareness Month with the Jewish Special Education International Consortium

We recognize Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM) for only the fifth consecutive year. In that short span, Jewish communities across North America have adopted JDAM as a call to action.

Yasher koach, we say to each other as we hold a Shabbat of Inclusion, invite participants from a group home to services, or invite a speaker to give the sermon on disability issues. Each activity tagged with the JDAM logo means that someone is paying attention and observing that there are many people with disabilities and mental health disorders still living on the margins of Jewish life.

We must sincerely and with integrity work towards the day when any Jewish person who has a disability can be a valued member of the Jewish community, not by platitudes, but by recognizing that individual’s gifts, strengths and desires to live a Jewish life.

Think for a moment of all that you have come to value by being a member of your Jewish community–whatever form that takes.

Do you have a picture of that in your mind? Imagine if none of that existed for you; that you could see others doing what you want to do through a clouded window. Imagine if all you love about belonging to your Jewish community was not destined to be yours. How would your life be different? You would be denied access to all you value and never have the opportunity to choose what your own participation would be.

So it is for many Jews with disabilities and their families. We have a responsibility to take action beyond Jewish Disability Awareness Month.

Inclusion does not happen just because we know it is the right (and Jewish) thing to do. It happens because people who believe that each human was created in the Divine Image know that when one person is left out from belonging, we are not finished with our work of inclusion.

There is much to do, and the clock is ticking. As an advocate for and practitioner of Jewish community inclusion across the lifespan in all facets of Jewish life, I have been privileged to be a partner of many Jews, of all ages, who sought inclusion, membership and to simply “belong” to the community. Inclusion is possible. We can do this when we set our course, determined to adapt our attitudes and beliefs so that all may belong.

Each of us is responsible for each other. What can and will you do?

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Announcing the 2013 Ruderman Prize in Disability


In this special edition of Zeh Lezeh today I want to share the worldwide announcement of the 2013 Ruderman Prize in Disability.  The following press release was sent all over the globe, and we are already seeing interest from Jewish communities in Rwanda, Fiji, and the Netherlands—among many others.

We excited about the buzz the Prize is generating, and look forward to receiving applications from excellent and innovative programs that will inspire our community to an ever greater dedication to inclusion.

–Jay Ruderman

Second Annual Ruderman Prize Will Celebrate International Work on Inclusion

Newton, MA (February 10, 2013) Ruderman Family Foundation President Jay Ruderman today announced the launch of the 2013 Ruderman Prize in Disability, its second year, which will provide $250,000 in funding to recognize  innovative programs and services that foster full inclusion of people with disabilities in the Jewish community worldwide.  The $50,000 awards will be given to five organizations that work in the disability arena, serve those in the Jewish community, and actively champion inclusion in their work.

“This year’s Ruderman Prize in Disability will again celebrate exemplars in inclusion, which by example accelerate innovations for people with disabilities and energize the global Jewish community to work toward those ideals,” said Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation.  “We believe this competition will generate new attention to the issue and spur new ambitions, as we work toward our goal of the full inclusion of people with disabilities in the Jewish community, so that these individuals have the same employment, social, and religious opportunities as those without disabilities.”

In June, the Foundation awarded $200,000 total to ten organizations.  The Foundation received over 150 applications representing seven countries.  The Ruderman Prize recognizes organizations for exemplary existing initiatives rather than making grants for new programs.

The application form for the awards is available on the Foundation’s website.  Submissions are due on March 18 and winners will be announced in May.

The Ruderman Family Foundation is dedicated to creating and promoting innovation that fosters inclusion of people with disabilities in the Jewish community and Israel.

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Moses, Inclusion, and Jewish Disability Awareness Month


As you may know, February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM).  It was founded in 2008 by the Jewish Special Education Consortium and this year we are hearing about schools, congregations, and communal organizations marking the occasion with celebration and reflection. You can check out the JDAM Facebook page here.

Below, our colleague Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi takes the opportunity to reflect in a JTA op-ed on the state of inclusion in Jewish organizations in the United States.

What are you doing for JDAM?

–Jay Ruderman


Play the money card to push rights for disabled

By Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi,  February 7, 2013

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Jewish identity and connection are the birthright of every Jew. So why do so many Jewish institutions discriminate against Jews with disabilities?

It keeps happening because we let it happen. We make excuses by saying there isn’t enough support or enough dollars, or because we value children going to Harvard over those who won’t.

With February being Jewish Disability Awareness Month, it’s time to ask how long we plan to provide the pearls of our heritage only to those capable of receiving them in the rote methods they are presented?

Judaism teaches us that when we were slaves in Egypt and really needed help, God’s instrument was a person with a disability: Moses was “slow of speech and tongue.” But with tremendous assistance from Aaron and the proper supports, Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and into freedom and the Promised Land.

For how long will the keys to our treasure trove of tradition only be given to those at our Jewish day schools, synagogue religious schools, youth groups and others who can use those keys without adaptation or support?

More is being done in some institutions to broaden the tent, and there are pockets of excellence. However, I know more than a hundred parents from across America, including top Jewish leaders, whose children have been rejected or “counseled out” from Jewish day schools because of their disabilities.

I watched in pain recently as a prestigious Jewish day school encouraged three children in a classroom of 16 students to leave Jewish day schools because the schools did not want to accommodate their special needs. The three went on to non-Jewish schools for children who are college bound but have special needs. Their parents’ tuition bills increased from $25,000 a year to $35,000 to $65,000 a year — funds they gladly would have paid to keep their children within the walls of a Jewish school.

Instead these families, who needed support from the Jewish community as they were dealing with their children’s special needs, left feeling anger as their community turned them away.

Too often, no matter how hard they try, many Jews with disabilities are simply not fully welcomed. This isn’t an isolated problem: Estimates based on Jewish studies put the number of Jewish children in America with some sort of disability at 200,000. According to the U.S. Census, 20 percent of Americans have a disability, and a recent national poll showed that 51 percent of likely American voters either have a disability or a loved one with a disability.

The Jewish community harms itself when it turns away people with disabilities.

Moreover, some buildings for Jewish day schools, synagogues and special events education have doors that are too narrow for wheelchairs. Why host programs in places that are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act? High Holidays services are led without sign language interpreters in congregations with deaf members. We hand out songs sheets in font sizes too small for the visually impaired to read.

The mantra of the disability community, which wants and deserves a say in its destiny, has become “Nothing about us without us.” Yet even many Jewish organizations that serve Jews with disabilities don’t put people with disabilities on their committees, staffs or boards.

We would not tolerate it if a prestigious school rejected children because they were Jewish. Why does the Jewish community continue to tolerate it when Jewish institutions say no to people with disabilities?

It’s time to use the power of the purse to stop the discrimination.

The “golden rule” of non-profits is that those who give the gold makes the rules. So donors, large and small, must say “hineini” (here I am) to end the intolerance and injustice. Rather than talking the talk, we must walk the walk.

Jews with disabilities aren’t the only Jews who face discrimination from within; so does the LBGT community. Thankfully the Schusterman and Morningstar foundations, along with Stuart Kurlander, the president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and a gay rights activist, have created an index to show if Jewish groups are open to the LBGT community. They are having a positive impact. This is an example to follow.

Indeed, the Ruderman Family Foundation was the first to raise this issue when it came to inclusion of Jews with disabilities. Others should follow its example. At the Mizrahi Family Charitable Trust, we are. While our family foundation doesn’t accept any unsolicited applicants, even those who we encourage to apply for support must answer serious questions.

They include:

* Does your organization have policies that support meaningful inclusion of people with disabilities at all levels, including on your board of directors?

* Does your organization have a disability advisory committee/inclusion committee?

* Will the program or project include people with disabilities?  If not, why not?  If so, how do you plan to identify, reach and welcome them?

* Describe the accessibility of your offices to people with physical disabilities.

* Do you employ and/or offer internships to individuals who have disabilities?  If so, what are their jobs?  Do they receive the same compensation and benefits as all other employees in like positions?  Please describe how you educate your board of directors or trustees and staff about serving and partnering with people with disabilities.

Our foundation is smaller than others, but we believe that no matter the size of our philanthropic investments, they must be moral in nature. For example, this year we cut funding to an organization with the sole purpose of serving people with disabilities, but tragically the very people they were supposedly serving didn’t feel they were being heard and respected as equals.

We hope that others, including federations, foundations and individuals, will join us as we fight for justice and opportunity, so that all Jews can experience our Jewish birthright.

(Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the co-founder and director of the Mizrahi Family Charitable Trust and founder and president of Laszlo Strategies.)

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