A man in a wheelchair praying.
A disabled man in a wheelchair, praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Photo by Dreamstime
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SAN DIEGO – "The Jewish community has not done a good job of including people with disabilities,” philanthropist Jay Ruderman declared on Friday, launching a new initiative to push for greater inclusion of the disabled in Jewish congregational life.

On stage at a URJ Biennial plenary session on Friday, Ruderman asked the hundreds of audience members to raise their hands if they or a loved one or friend was disabled in any way. Nearly every hand went up.

Ruderman said he viewed the disabled as a disenfranchised minority - a large and ever-growing minority. “Disability is all of us,” he said. “It is the largest minority group, and it is the only minority group that all of us are like to end up joining as we grow older.”

The Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Initiative, a new partnership between the Union of Reform Judaism and the Ruderman Family Foundation, is aimed at “improving attitudes about inclusion and disabilities among community leaders and clergy, Jewish professionals, organizational leaders, and congregants," the two organizations said, "to ensure full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Reform Jewish life."

Congregations that commit to “a process of intensive learning and creative change” will work towards certification as Ruderman Congregations of Merit in Inclusion. The $600,000 initiative is slated for three years, and will include the movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., supporting work advocating legislation for equal protection under the law for those living with disabilities.

URJ president Rabbi Rick Jacobs welcomed the initiative as a vehicle which "will allow us to create a network of synagogues that will model best practices not only for our Movement, but for the broader Jewish community. Only then will our congregations come to be recognized as truly enduring, safe spiritual homes which more and more people will want to support and join."

Ruderman said that he hoped the initiative would spark wider change, resulting in the inclusive Reform synagogues “becoming models for Conservative and Orthodox” counterparts to emulate.