Just before his Bar Mitzvah, Ari Ne’eman’s parents pulled him out of his Jewish day school and enrolled him in public school, after it became clear that the private Solomon Schechter school in New Jersey was unable to accommodate a student with autism.
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When his parents told him of their decision, he wept and asked his mother, “But Mom, what about my Jewish education?"
Ne’eman’s personal history of often feeling unwelcome and excluded from the organized Jewish community due to his disability made today’s announcement particularly meaningful: He is the second recipient of the Ruderman Family Foundation’s Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion.
The $100,000 award “recognizes an individual who has made an extraordinary contribution to the inclusion of people with disabilities in the Jewish world and the greater public, and is based on past achievements and the potential for future contributions to the field.”
Ne’eman, 27, is the founder and president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, an organization run by and for autistic adults seeking to increase the representation of autistic people across society.
In 2009, President Barack Obama nominated him to the National Council on Disability, a federal agency charged with advising Congress and the president on disability policy issues, making him, at age 22, the youngest presidential appointee in U.S. history.
“My Jewish identity and the principle of 'tikkun olam,' repairing the world, has always been at the core of my activism,” said Ne’eman in an interview. “I’ve always drawn a certain amount of inspiration from Jewish history in which people took control of their own destiny.”
Despite his difficulties integrating into organized Jewish life when he was young, Ne’eman said his attachment to Judaism has remained strong. His American-Israeli mother and Israeli father moved to New Jersey shortly before he was born. “I grew up surrounded by Israeli music and culture and the Hebrew language,” he said.
Today, he is engaged to a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. On a recent visit to Israel to see his fiancé, who was studying in Jerusalem, he met with Israeli disability rights advocates “to collaborate and discuss our commonalities and our differences” and to encourage the disability groups who follow his model of “self-advocacy” - in which the disabled represent themselves instead of being spoken for by their family members or caregiving organizations.
He said that although Israel is “several decades behind” the United States on numerous issues pertaining to the disabled, such as over-institutionalization, “there are many bold and brave individuals moving the conversation forward.”
Announcing the award, Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, said, “Ari Ne’eman serves as an inspiration to millions of people with disabilities around the world. As one of the leading disability self-advocates in the United States, Ari is extremely wise beyond his years. His voice advocating for people with disabilities taking control of their own lives is respected in our nation’s capital and throughout our country.”
Ne’eman, in turn, praised the Ruderman Foundation’s leadership on issues of disability inclusion in the Jewish community. "People with disabilities deserve the right to have our voices at the center of the national conversation about us. I believe that no conversation on autism or any disability is complete without the meaningful inclusion of those most directly impacted: people with disabilities ourselves."
In the framework of his role at the White House, Ne’eman has served as a public member to the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, a federal advisory committee that coordinates all efforts within the Department of Health and Human Services concerning autism, and also served as an adviser to the DSM-5 Neurodevelopmental Disorders Workgroup convened by the American Psychiatric Association. In 2010, he was named by the New York Jewish Week as one of their “36 by 36.