For Jay Ruderman, Sharon Shapiro, and Shira Ruderman, leaders of the Ruderman Family Foundation, making a prosocial impact starts at the family level but extends to a national and international scale.
Jay is president and chair of the Board, Sharon is trustee, and Shira is the executive director of the Boston-based foundation, an organization that uniquely blends advocacy and strategic philanthropy in areas of focus ranging from inclusion and mental health to Israel-American Jewry relations and strategic philanthropy. Jay and Shira are married, while Jay and Sharon are siblings who grew up in Lynnfield.
Jay has focused his life’s work on public service, as an Assistant District Attorney; an activist seeking social justice throughout society; an advocate for people with disabilities worldwide; and by educating Israeli leaders as well as the general public on the American Jewish community. Sharon is passionate about mental health solutions among young adults in our society. Shira is a manager and a strategist, promoting the new Israeli approach to philanthropy, which believes in strategic giving, involvement, and social entrepreneurship.
Can you tell us a little bit about growing up in Lynnfield? What are your memories about the Jewish community there?
Sharon: Lynnfield was a small town and had a small Jewish community when we grew up there. We attended an Orthodox synagogue in Malden and a Conservative synagogue in Wakefield and went to public school, where we were very much in the minority. We grew up in a Zionist home and were a traditionally observant family with a kosher home. We were very much committed to our Jewish heritage and the Jewish community. We started our philanthropic work with Orthodox day schools as a result of this.
Why did the foundation originally choose to focus on disability inclusion?
Jay: Although I didn’t choose this important cause to be a leading topic for the foundation – I inherited it from my father and Shira – I knew it was the right thing to do as an activist to pursue disability rights and inclusion. My key role was to turn it into an international social justice issue, taking it from our Jewish community into Israel and throughout the U.S. I brought my knowledge from politics into philanthropy and brought awareness to our method of work. I’m proud to say that we worked with over 300 organizations in the space, allocated over $80 million to the topic, worked with governments to change policies and budgets, and created a movement of people with and without disabilities to continue this important work.
Shira: We started our work within Jewish education, where at times excellence was defined in very basic terms. We wanted to change this reality, make everyone feel welcome, and make our education excellent not only in name, but in practice. That is how we founded Gateways. Once we understood the need and saw the potential that we had to create real impact, we developed a whole portfolio with a theory of change and started to work as a business with a mission and goals in mind. I’m proud to say we’ve created many partners in the field of inclusion, the Jewish world, the general public and the State of Israel.
Sharon: Our work on inclusion has created a legacy for my father by expanding his local vision, which we grew nationally and internationally. We also created signature initiatives around the issue like the annual Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion, which recognizes individuals who have championed the inclusion of people with disabilities in our community and general society. The award’s recipients have included the likes of recording artist, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Selena Gomez, five-time NBA All-Star Kevin Love, Academy Award-nominated actor Taraji P. Henson, and decorated Olympian Michael Phelps.
And why did the foundation turn to Hollywood as an industry to further its vision when it came to inclusion?
Shira: It starts with advocacy – specifically, changing attitudes and mindsets. When we approached changemaking in entertainment not from within the industry but rather as outsiders, we understood that in order to have a large audience learn the values of inclusion and authentic representation, we’d need to work with those who are responsible for what we see on screen. They’re our generation’s greatest influencers, and that’s why we chose to work with Hollywood.
That said, we didn’t work with the entertainment industry right away. We started by collecting data to educate influencers and the general public about the industry’s gaps in inclusion, and through criticism of the industry, major players in Hollywood eventually became our partners. Today, we partner with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to champion new perspectives on filmmaking and film history as well as ensure a more equitable experience for people with disabilities. Our Seal of Authentic Representation award recognizes films and television series whose casting decisions demonstrate a commitment toward full inclusiveness in popular culture.
Jay: We’re all impacted by entertainment; it has changed popular culture. That’s why we started developing relationships with actors and studios, emphasizing that disability is part of diversity after Hollywood for years had only defined diversity based on race, gender, and other factors. Once we saw changes in attitude taking hold, the entertainment industry’s behavior also began to change. Major Hollywood studios – CBS Entertainment, NBC Universal, Paramount Pictures, and Sony Pictures Entertainment – have now signed our pledge to audition actors with disabilities.
Can you tell us some more about the foundation’s efforts in the mental health arena and your strategy for making an impact?
Sharon: Our work in mental health began eight years ago as part of our inclusion portfolio. There were unprecedented needs in the mental health field during the pandemic, and those needs persist today. The pandemic meant that we needed to adapt and accelerate our model for changemaking in a time of acute crisis. One key partner for the foundation in this space is the Brookline Center for Community Mental Health and their Bridge for Resilient Youth in Transition (BRYT) program. Their vital services like integrated on-campus services, including counseling, academic supports, and additional support staff are now available at nearly all 437 public high schools in Massachusetts due to our partnership.
We work with many organizations and experts in this field and each time I meet young adults, I’m inspired to hear about their difficult journeys, how they’ve worked to overcome obstacles related to mental health and use their experience to motivate others.
Shira: Once inclusion was no longer the foundation’s primary impact area, we focused on mental health in Massachusetts, identifying the target audience of high school and college students – whose needs grew more urgent than ever during the pandemic.
By addressing the stigma associated with mental health challenges and raising awareness around that issue, we were able to develop and scale models for mental health services in Massachusetts that could then be replicated nationally.
What can be both challenging and rewarding about working together at your own family’s foundation?
Sharon: You need to know where the business relationship ends, and when to just be family. It takes time to learn how you can literally end the workday on Friday at 4 p.m., arrive at a family dinner at 6 p.m., and avoid talking about business when everyone gets together.
Shira: In my experience, working for your family is an added value. You’re committed to your own name. You work harder because it’s yours and you don’t want to disappoint. You feel an increased obligation about every penny that’s being spent and the name that you have out there. You feel a commitment beyond the work. In essence, working for your family is the greatest responsibility you can receive.
Can you describe the foundation’s mission when it comes to Israel-American Jewry relations?
Jay: When I enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces and became the military’s liaison with world Jewry, it was a wakeup call. I discovered the tremendous gap between Israelis and Americans – that whatever Americans think is not necessarily what Israelis think. The gap is substantial, and I was inspired to take action to bridge it.
That’s why we’ve undertaken multifaceted efforts to solidify Israel’s relationship with American Jewry. For example, our Knesset Caucus for Israel-American Jewry Relations aims to elevate the public conversation and educate elected officials in Israel about American Jews. We also created the first academic program of its kind at the University of Haifa with the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies, a master’s degree which prepares the new generation of professional leaders within this field in Israel. Furthermore, the foundation is constantly leading research efforts that provide leaders and decision-makers with the data needed to properly understand the current trends in Israel-American Jewry relations, as well as social media activity that educates the Israeli general public about the American Jewish community, such as our new TV productions, “The New Jew” and “The Jewish Foodie.”
Shira: We invest in Israel and in Israelis – which is quite unique when it comes to Jewish organizations who also operate in the U.S. Perhaps most importantly, we’ve identified that strengthening the Israel-American Jewry relationship means creating opportunities for knowledge and learning, in order to eventually change approaches and attitudes. Compared to the public opinion landscape when we started working on this issue two decades ago, research from several surveys we’ve commissioned demonstrates that many more Israelis today believe the relationship with American Jewry is a crucial one for Israel’s existence.
What do you envision as the foundation’s long-term legacy in the Jewish community?
Jay: As Jewish philanthropy continues to change, as private family philanthropy grows, and as private philanthropy’s relationship with major Jewish organizations evolves, our family’s history and agenda could serve as an example. We do not shy away from trying to solve complex issues; just the opposite – we see philanthropy as a vehicle for driving societal change and making our community and society a better place.
Sharon: When we started working on mental health, there was nothing being done in the Jewish community on the issue. So, we stepped up and worked with secular organizations. Now, we’re bringing it back into the Jewish community. Everybody has had to come up to speed on mental health, because these challenges are affecting all of our kids. We also value our representation of the entire Jewish community, across denominations. We make it a principle to work with everyone across our community.
Shira: We’re committed to strengthening our Jewish community and its relationship with the State of Israel, through our values of identity, faith, and Zionism, as well as through an understanding of the power of philanthropy to create opportunities and initiatives. We take risks and speak in a bold way. And we will always be committed to social justice issues like inclusion and mental health. Θ