Where Every Soul Counts

Philanthropist Jay Ruderman wants to build a more inclusive Jewish community.

by Andrea Glick

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Who is Jay Ruderman? A former assistant district attorney who now is the president of his family’s foundation. A passionate advocate for inclusion throughout the Jewish world. Someone who served in the IDF and a father of four. “Life takes unexpected turns,” says Ruderman. Indeed, life led him from Boston to Israel and back again, and now, to the forefront of an effort to build a more inclusive Jewish community. The Ruderman Family Foundation recently launched a partnership with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism to transform its congregations into places where everything – from the bima to social activities to the very attitudes of congregants and leaders – allows people with disabilities and their families to participate fully and comfortably in congregational life. For Ruderman, it’s all about what kind of community we really want to be.

CJ: Why is inclusion such an important issue for you and the Ruderman Family Foundation? What’s the problem that you’re tackling?

Jay Ruderman: The Jewish community doesn’t do a very good job at including all sorts of people on the fringes of society – chief among them people with disabilities. What we’re talking to the Jewish community about is being a different type of community where every Jewish soul is important and that’s what being Jewish is all about.

CJ: If you had all of the leaders of all of the synagogues in America sitting in a room, what would you say to them about inclusion?

JR: Is being Jewish just about catering to a certain secure sector? Or are we about taking care of and including everyone who’s Jewish? If we’re about the first, then we’re not doing the job we could be doing. We need to learn from others who’ve been successful at taking care of and including everyone. I think that in the process of building a more inclusive community we’ll become a better community, a more attractive community, a community where all Jews want to participate.

CJ: Have you seen that in some places? What does it look like?

JR: We give $50,000 awards called the Ruderman Prize in Inclusion. These awards have gone from Australia to
Argentina, Mexico, Russia, Israel, across the United States and Canada. B’nai Amoona in St. Louis is a Conservative
synagogue that is an example for all synagogues. They really include people with disabilities in synagogue life. They’re not the only ones, but they stick out as the gold standard.

CJ: What led to your recent partnership with United Synagogue?

JR: Our partnership with USCJ is an example of a strategy that we’re applying right now to connect with influential
organizations that represent large portions of our community. We’re working with the Conservative movement, the
Reform movement, and Chabad. The agenda of promoting inclusion fits with everyone’s agenda – it goes across all
denominations. I’m encouraged by how receptive the community is, but I think we have not yet reached the tipping point.We have a ways to go, but I’m confident we’ll get there.

CJ: When was your “aha” moment?

JR: When I took over the foundation, I had this theory of going narrow and deep. I decided that if we were going to be impactful, that we should focus on one or two areas and go very, very deep in those areas. And in the process, we developed a certain amount of expertise, and we’ve surrounded ourselves with people who are experts on inclusion, and listened to people with disabilities and heard their critiques about the Jewish community. What continues to motivate me is that the inclusion of people with disabilities is a civil rights issue. It’s a human rights issue. It’s a social justice issue.

CJ: What’s your best day at work?

JR: When I meet with organizations they love to tell me anecdotes about somebody we’ve put to work, and how we’ve changed their family. And while that’s moving, what we’re really trying to do is change the attitude of our community. We want to get to the point where we don’t have to advocate for inclusion because it’s already become an accepted and practiced value. The days that mean the most to me are when a fellow philanthropist will approach me and say, “You are changing our community.”

CJ: So you’re enjoying being a philanthropist?

JR: I enjoy the advocacy. First of all, not many people know what is involved in philanthropy. There’s a saying: “Once you know one philanthropist, you know one philanthropist.” We’re all very different, and we all operate differently. I do think philanthropy, in many ways, sets the tone for the community. People involved in philanthropy have an obligation to be very explicit, to explain to the community what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. They have a role in setting the agenda of the community.

CJ: I know that you had been living in Israel, and now you’re back in the States. How’s the adjustment going?

JR: In the United States, we look at Israel and say, “Israel’s a Jewish country, I’m Jewish, I understand what Israel’s about.” But Israel is really, really different from America, and people often don’t understand that – especially when they visit and it’s like a trip to Disneyland, the Israel they want to see. Israel is a very complex place, with many different layers.

CJ: Did you ever expect to live in Israel?

JR: I never expected to. I married an Israeli, and my life in Israel was great – very fulfilling, and there’s no other place in the world where Judaism pervades everything. But I never thought that I would make my life there, mainly because I’m very attached to American culture and society. That being said, Israel is central and essential to the foundation’s activities. Our presence there will continue until full societal and attitudinal changes become a reality.