Disability Is Not a Costume: A Jewish Funder Moves From Religion to Disability Advocacy

  Andrey Popov/Shutterstock

 Andrey Popov/Shutterstock

We first got to know the Ruderman Family Foundation (RFF) as a funder of Jewish causes. In its home city of Boston, it’s well known around town for being a major player in supporting local Jewish schools and promoting Jewish studies in higher education.

But unlike many other Jewish foundations that have been giving money to the same types of causes since the beginning, this one is evolving and becoming a niche expert. Over the last few years, RFF has emerged as a pioneer in the field of disability inclusion. This pursuit first began within the realm of Jewish institutions but has since expanded to the secular world as well. RFF has been extending its disability inclusion funding to secular groups in major industries and especially to the media lately. RFF is looking to make a broader impact in this area by moving beyond the Jewish world, largely because its leader concluded that having a narrow religious focus is inefficient.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work in the Jewish community, but it’s a tremendous amount of money to move the needle incrementally,” the president of the foundation, Jay Ruderman, told JTA. “It’s $18,000 to put someone in a job” through a vocational training program. “We’re not going to change the world that way.”

This is a relatively new foundation, only established in 2002, so it’s not too surprising to see big changes happening at this phase of its evolution—although the degree to which the foundation has broadened beyond its strong religious roots is striking.

Jay Ruderman, the son of Morton Ruderman who launched the medical technology company, Meditech, isn’t overly entrenched in one particular way of giving just yet. And he’s keeping his eyes open to new opportunities and being mindful of the level of impact his foundation is making. While most of the funder’s money is still going to Jewish programs, it’s been interesting to watch funds flow to a range of initiatives in the disability area. 

While many Boston disability groups have been seeing RFF’s support lately, the Ruderman Prize in Inclusion is an annual competition that looks more broadly across the U.S. and around the world. In the most recent prize round, RFF awarded five grants totaling $250,000 to organizations focused on technology, the arts, and advocacy in the media.

One prize recipient, AXS Map, is using the money for an online database and mobile app for accessibility information, while Bezalel is an Israeli art and design school that designs products for people with disabilities. Meanwhile, other awards went to the Media Access Awards ceremony in Los Angeles that promotes disability depictions in film, to an employment platform for people with disabilities called Egalite, and to a German nonprofit that makes disability content more accessible in the media.

“As our societies move away from the segregation and institutionalization of people with disabilities toward respecting the rights of twenty percent of our population to be fully included in every aspect of modern life, our awardees from the U.S. (Hollywood and Brooklyn), Germany, Israel and Brazil are examples that can inspire us to do better and be better in making disability inclusion a reality," said Jay Ruderman.

Another exciting thing to note about RFF is that overall funding is growing as well. Last year, the funder gave out less than $8 million. But the annual giving amount for 2017 has been increased to at least $10 million. The foundation has even hired a few new staff members lately, further highlighting its growth.

At an impressive pace, RFF has transformed itself from yet another Jewish funder into an advocacy foundation and a cheerleader for disability rights. The funder has released several white papers on the issue, more specifically on topics like police killings of disabled individuals and the representation of people with disabilities in the media. To raise its profile as an advocate on the issue, RFF has enlisted the help of some famous actors who appear in TV and movies. R.J. Mitte, Walter White’s on-screen son in Breaking Bad, has appeared at RFF events as prime example of what individuals with disabilities are truly capable of. There’s also a big push for actors with disabilities to play the roles of characters with disabilities, rather than hiring an able-bodied actor to do those jobs.

Just recently, Jay Ruderman stepped up front and center to voice his outrage about the depiction of people with disabilities in film. He is protesting Alec Baldwin's casting in the movie, Blind, because it portrays a disability as a costume that able-bodied actors can try on at will. 

"It’s clear that audiences want to see stories about people with disabilities, and it’s about time we start actually casting the thousands of available, talented actors with disabilities to fill these roles," Ruderman said.

A final thing that we’ll point out here is that RFF has been keeping a closer eye on its Jewish-related funding to gauge the effectiveness of that kind of support. This is significant when compared to its broadening disability efforts that we were just talking about. Unrestricted funding to Jewish organizations is now at an all-time low—less than one percent of total grants.

RFF is definitely a growing funder to keep an eye on, whether you’re in Boston or anywhere in the world and working in the field of disability inclusion. Advocacy has been the name of the game for RFF lately, making it stand out as one of those rare and refreshing funders that isn’t afraid to shake things up and take a stand. 

Related: A Closer Look at the Ruderman Family Foundation’s Boston Funding