Jay Ruderman: Disability Issues are Issues of Social Justice
by Jay Ruderman
Wikipedia defines social justice as, “the ability people have to realize their potential in the society where they live.” This definition can be broken down into three parts: realizing potential, in society, and where they live. For Jewish people with disabilities, each of these parts presents a challenge – and for the rest of us, they present an opportunity.
The full inclusion of people with disabilities in society is a matter of social justice, civil rights, and fairness. Every Jew counts, every Jew has something unique to offer our community, and every Jew is created in the image of God, no matter how they look or express themselves. Approximately 1,000,000 Jews in the United States have some form of disability. Look at that number again: 1,000,000 people, in our community alone. Our job must be to invite them in, not put up barriers to keep them out.
Can a person with a disability realize his or her potential? The unemployment/underemployment rate for people with disabilities of working age is close to 80%. Gainful employment can build a person’s self-esteem, enable him or her to get out of the house and be social, and change preexisting prejudices about his or her abilities. Additionally, gainful employment allows individuals with disabilities to become contributing members of the workforce, which benefits the overall economy. Keeping people with disabilities out of work leaves them at home, with little chance to realize their potential.
Are we, as a society, inclusive? Many of our schools are not. Many parents are forced to forgo a Jewish education because schools lack the resources or are unwilling to “accommodate” a child with disabilities. These children should not be accommodated. They should be welcomed with open arms, like every other child! When considering moving to a new city, all parents have to consider educational options. Parents of children with disabilities have added concerns: If the community is not inclusive, then the community is not an attractive one.
Consider your local community: Is it as inclusive as possible? And this leads me to the third part…
Once a person already lives in a community, do they have the necessary services at their disposal or are they required to look for solutions elsewhere? For example, the synagogue is the central meeting place in many Jewish communities; for prayer, for communal meetings, education, celebrations and more. Next time you go to your synagogue, look around and see how inclusive it is. You may not realize it at first, but many people with disabilities do not attend services at their local synagogue. Could your synagogue pews be full every Shabbat? Could your synagogue use an influx of members and their families? Wouldn’t it be nice if a few more people would join the building fund?
Social justice begins at home, in our Jewish communities. Our workplaces, our schools, our synagogues should be open to everyone, including people with disabilities. This is a challenge our community must face, accept, and succeed at. We do not have the luxury of giving up on 1,000,000 of our fellow Jews.
The Ruderman Family Foundation’s partnership with URJ will help us reach the goal of creating a fair and flourishing community. As the largest stream within North American Judaism, the URJ’s commitment to social justice and to being at the forefront of civil rights struggles has helped change attitudes in the overall Jewish community. We hope that our joint synagogue initiative will accomplish the same goal and educate the broader Jewish community that being inclusive is just and strengthens our collective community.
Social justice is the ability people have, but are we preventing people with disabilities from displaying their abilities? Tzedek tzedek tirdof, says the Torah – you should chase after justice. We need to be proactive and to create lasting change. Our combined Jewish future will be better because of our efforts.
Jay Ruderman is the president of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Jay is active on Twitter, where he’s happy to engage on the issues of inclusion and philanthropy. To learn more about inclusion, visit and like the foundation’s Facebook page.
The URJ is proud to partner with the Ruderman Family Foundation to ensure full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Reform Jewish life.