Fresh from the IDF’s prestigious 8200 intelligence unit, Shira Ruderman was accustomed to giving briefings when she first entered American boardrooms back in 2001. At the behest of her new father-in-law, the businessman and philanthropist Mort Ruderman, she led a series of exploratory meetings ahead of setting up the Ruderman Family Foundation.
But she discovered that after each presentation, she was politely dismissed by the attending men.
“Without saying it, their expressions told me: How come my father in law — because it’s his wealth — did not lead this meeting? They were extremely surprised, and pretty much dismissive — in a respectful American manner. After the meetings they would tell me, ‘Okay, we’re going to call Mort,'” Ruderman said during a recent conversation at The Times of Israel’s Jerusalem office. She laughed and added, “And I was like, ‘We’ll see where that gets you.'”
Today, no one in the growing field of Jewish philanthropy would dare underestimate the diminutive Israeli-born foundation director. But back then, observing her new country’s business culture as an outsider, Ruderman said she saw a huge difference in the ways in which women and men were treated by these high-powered, monied Americans.
“I was extremely lucky to have an amazing father-in-law, who, though he may have been very traditional, was extremely open to this new experience, and was an amazing partner — not just a boss — in making it happen,” said Ruderman.
Ruderman grew up as a feminist in a Modern Orthodox home in Rehovot before serving in a competitive IDF intelligence unit. Later, as a self-described “unpolished” 20-something Boston bride, Ruderman said she was initially taken aback by the ways in which women were — and often still are — sidelined in the United States from high-profile positions in the business and philanthropic spheres.
“I learned quickly that the only way to overcome [the prejudice] was to prove your worth, and be a good professional and a good person, and not let the gender issue become the conversation. Because there’s no point,” she said.
Don’t be fooled by her broad smile: Ruderman clearly suffers no fools and is accustomed to articulating her positions in well thought out paragraphs. Speaking fluently and eloquently in English punctuated with laughter, she shared her journey into the world of activist philanthropy and how she sees it as essential to the future of the Jewish people.
Since 2002, Ruderman, alongside her American-born husband, Jay Ruderman, who serves as president, has helped run the foundation from Boston. In 2006, it also opened an Israel office. Today, with a foot in both worlds, the family foundation focuses on two main areas: disabilities advocacy and bridging the Israel-Diaspora gap — to the tune of over $150 million so far.
The foundation’s dual focus evolved from a perceived communal shortfall, but she said the initial disabilities advocacy became more urgent after a close family member was diagnosed with a special need. However, it is bridging the gap between the US Jewish community and Israel that hits even closer to home for the 40-year-old mother of four.
“I live the story personally. I’m married to an American, we share a life between Israel and America — a few years here, a few years there. We work heavily with the Jewish community across the United States, and heavily with the State of Israel. And I see the differences,” she said.
Today, Ruderman is challenging the American Jewish community to overcome its own disenfranchisement — and egos — to speak with each other in the aim of creating a representative US Jewish voice. This first step must be taken, she said, ahead of a necessary reset and renewal of vigorous dialogue between Israel and the Diaspora.
“We’re in a time of need. We recognize today that our Jewish communities and the State of Israel are in a complex situation and it calls for action, and I think we need brave action,” said Ruderman.
The following wide-ranging interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You are a female leader in a world that is pretty much full of suits and ties. How do you deal with that, and do you see it changing at all?
I do see the change. When I started in 2001, it was, in my world of who I came across, almost purely men because the Jewish nonprofit world is a parallel world to the business world. And who is in business? Men. So it was very easy to understand why the circles in the nonprofit were similar circles to those in the business world, because the men run the show also when it came to big giving or strategic giving and not small donations – which was very, very frustrating, especially for an Israeli woman.
Because in Israel, we do grow up understanding — even if we need to improve on the pay gap or certain things — but the way I grew up was that “You can do anything,” and feminism was very much a part of our day-to-day here. Going to the US in 2001 or 2002 was a very surprising experience for me. Because I didn’t see women in influential places. I saw women in volunteering, but not influential places.
Even in the States.
Specifically in the States. If you look at the Jewish professional world you can probably count on one hand how many women CEOs you know in the major Jewish federations and organizations, and I think this is actually the proof showing how we view, as a culture, the role of women. I think that there has been a slight change in the philanthropic world, there are amazing, strong women who lead their philanthropies and foundations, but I wish to see more.
If we believe in equality, we cannot not see women, or people with disability, in positions of leadership
If we believe in equality, we cannot not see women, or people with disability, in positions of leadership. If we believe that the female voice and expertise and skills are equal, it’s impossible for us not to see more women in positions of decision-making.
Do you think that by being Israeli, it gave you somewhat of an edge over being “just” a woman? Meaning, had you been the daughter-in-law and an American, perhaps you wouldn’t have eventually been as accepted as you are today. Because you are also “the foreigner” so you can do your own thing.
My kids today make fun of me — my accent, my not having the nuances that they have — and I understood that maybe this is the amazing opportunity I have. In the beginning, you know, it’s scary. Not just being a woman and young, but as you said, not being fully American.
As an Israeli, I say we have to learn to be more quiet, and humble, and with the humility that we don’t have everything, we don’t know everything. But one thing I’d never take away is that we’re willing to make mistakes, we’re willing to challenge, and I think this is what helped me.
We’re not willing to take no for an answer, so you find solutions. And in American Jewry, I’ll tell you, it’s not always easy. People say to me, “That’s crazy, Shira. How do you want to make that happen?” And I say, “I don’t know, we’ll find solutions.” Because isn’t that all we’re about, finding solutions?
How does that play out in your working life?
It is one of the most extraordinary opportunities that someone can have in their life, to work in the world of philanthropy. Because we at once have the ability to dream, to do, to make mistakes — but to make things happen.
We have the ability to work with every sector with no bureaucracy; to put aside politics, which is our way; to allow ourselves to push the envelope maybe more than any other sector.
On both sides of the pond, people are talking about the Israel-Diaspora relationship being a chasm that no bridge can really connect right now, that people are speaking perhaps in English, but different languages, speaking in parallel. I wonder if that is your impression of the state of affairs right now.
I truly agree with the way you describe it — we do speak English, but maybe two different languages. I think part of it is because we don’t view it as a partnership. We don’t.
I’m an optimist, and I think that Jewish people went through other difficult times – prior to the establishment of this state and even after. We’ve been there. We’ve been in hard moments, had strong disagreement between the first prime minister and president [of the American Jewish Committee] as to how they saw the American Jewish role. But, we live in a different era. I can have a good Jewish life outside of the State of Israel and feel like a perfectly good Jew without the State of Israel.
You, I’m sure, have been to many of the GAs (Jewish Federations General Assembly conferences), and other meetings that are all about, “Let’s talk!” or have different forms for Diaspora-Israel dialogues. Everyone feels really good at the end of the sessions, and then nothing happens. How can we make things actually happen beyond Jerusalem or Tel Aviv convention centers?
I agree with you, and a single conversation in a special setting that was made just for it does not mean there is a deep and real conversation or relationship. Now, a relationship is not one-time – it’s not a date. It’s not that we now meet together for three days and then, “Bye, I’ll see you next year.”
We are in a relationship, which means that we need to find the platform to enable ongoing conversation. In order to create that, there is a challenge that we also have to acknowledge: American Jewry has its own domestic issues that it now has to deal with, from Jewish identity to Jewish education, to you name it, every single issue that we all know.
There are many struggles within the American Jewish community, so they are much more internally and domestically focused. We all know that the biggest number [in the American Jewish community] is the unaffiliated — people who are not feeling connected to the organizations. So we have a disconnect that has nothing to do with the State of Israel. But it exists, we have to address it.
At the same time, there is the State of Israel, which is still part of the [American Jewish] identity, and the question is how do we connect it? Therefore we need to say, “Do we create, as a state today, a platform? Do we call for ongoing conversation that will be done in a way that is outside, or through, the organizations?”
“Outside,” meaning the new platform we propose, and to make sure it will be representative of the Jewish community and not certain groups that stay there for 30, 40, 50 years. They did an amazing job, but they are not the voice of American Jewry today.
I’m thinking as you’re speaking it sounds like we need another Ben-Gurion-Blaustein agreement, where they set out — and never quite actually followed — the particular roles that each community was meant to have. But back in 1950 it sounded more like, “You Americans don’t interfere here, and we’ll try not to convince your Americans to come make aliyah.”
I think that’s absolutely true. We do need a new agreement. And in the agreement you also set the rules of the game and delineate roles. It is truly the source of the gap that we do not have a memorandum today.
Israel has the government, but who can speak for American Jewry at this point?
We, as American Jewry, have to look at ourselves and say, “How can the State of Israel have a dialogue if we don’t have – I’m not saying one voice, because we never had one voice – but a stable representation that could be the voice to start a dialogue.” And this is why I push back on some of the assumptions we all have [regarding the Israel-Disapora divide], because we all have a share in this.
American Jewry has to decide how its voice is going to be representative, what will be the format that will bring us together, what are the issues that we will fight for together in regard to the State of Israel; and the State of Israel has to decide what is the platform and framework for working with American Jewry as a partner. And I think until we do that, we probably won’t be able to solve a lot of our challenges.
There are many leading voices within the Jewish philanthropic community. Do you ever have a meeting of the minds and discuss, “Okay guys, look — if we all join forces, we can make a huge change”? Is that happening at all?
I would say yes — but. Who brings us together? We need to call for it. You’re talking about independent people who can make independent decisions. So it’s all out of good will, or a willingness to work together, or trying to understand at times that the goal is more important than our ego, or our passion. To have the understanding that the issues that most of us are trying to tackle are enormous, and beyond just one of us. And I think that slowly it’s happening more and more, but at the same time I think we need to understand the world of philanthropy.
The wealth is growing. So the wealthier people are, the more independent they are. And I understand them completely, because partnership is hard. It takes time, it’s a headache, it’s a compromise – we can’t lie to ourselves. But at the same time, the majority of us are not these individual billionaires. And we understand that we need each other, and that we can support each other.
Don’t you think historically the Jewish Agency Board of Governors would have been a natural meeting point? It’s many of “the” names together, and many of the communities, as well. But why hasn’t this happened.
[Laughing] Yes, the Jewish Agency, and others of what I call the legacy organizations should and could be the platforms. There are some things that have to happen in order for that to maybe refresh or restart, because things are changing every day, and also changed from their original purpose.
It goes back, in this case, to the State of Israel. Because Israel has a share in the legacy organizations, it’s a partnership. But it’s a partnership that was not revised for 70 or 100 years, depending on the organization. So we’re going back to the problem, which is that maybe we have a tool or infrastructure that can be used, but cannot be used by its current mechanism. And we have to update ourselves.
Do you know any business or nonprofit that could continue the same way of working for 70 years? No, we all get new software, and change our training, and change our mission, and do new strategic plans. My personal dream is to see the State of Israel looking at the legacy organizations, willing to be brave enough to do a restart, and to make it look very current to 2019, and not to 1940 or 1948.
The restart to the Jewish Agency won’t happen with the new head Isaac Herzog, or the new female director general Amira Aharonovich?
I think it can happen with them if it’s something agreed with other elements. Because it’s not just the decision of a CEO alone. This is beyond one organization and there are funders involved.
So it has to be more strategic, and with different partners. It cannot be done by one organization, and we have to understand that it’s a huge change, because you’re talking about going back to the mission, and to the vision, and to the people involved, and each country’s role.
It’s like the Israeli metaphor, which I don’t love, “going to war with tanks from 1948.” You would not dare to do it. So establishing a system for people who are spread around the world is a complex thing to do — but it’s a doable thing to do. We just can’t use the same mechanism we used 100 years ago.
It sounds like you’re willing, and I imagine there are others in your camp – do you think there’s a majority right now for changing these legacy organizations, in terms of the board makeup?
I can’t say that. I can’t say I didn’t discuss it with some, but I also can’t say it’s the majority, and I don’t know whether the field is ready. But we are a startup nation, and if we waited for everyone to be ready, things wouldn’t happen. Sometimes making a change is painful, but necessary and needed.
We need something deep, something sustainable — not just to find Band-Aids for short periods of time. We’re talking about generations connecting or disconnecting, and we don’t want to lose them. Our kids don’t speak in a united voice.
Our ability to take philanthropy, government, and nonprofit today is something that we never experienced before. We have amazing people in the philanthropic world willing to cooperate, who understand the need, and I believe that there are many elements that are ready, but someone just has to call the shot.
With contributions from Yaakov Schwartz.