Stein says he believes it is because, historically, Americans kept “others” out of the public sphere. That used to mean women and people of color were kept in the back, and it still often means that those with disabilities remain largely unseen. But while there has been some forward movement on several fronts, there remains a reticence to tell employers how to deal with their employees. It is, he conjectures, “a lingering libertarianism.”
Stein grew up in a New York, Orthodox family, and he has been to Israel many times.
“Israel fairly quickly signed on to the United Nations Treaty granting civil rights to persons with disabilities,” Stein explained. “But then, passing the regulations with which the law could be implemented and enforced – that took much longer.”
It was not until the very end of his interview with The Jewish Press that Stein revealed an experience he had growing up that exemplified what Morton Ruderman, the founder of the Ruderman Foundation, sought to correct in the Jewish world.
Growing up, Stein attended a yeshiva in New York City. After his disablement – he must use a wheelchair – the teachers told his parents “that it was probably not appropriate for him to continue at the yeshiva.”
Stein’s parents were having none of that. He continued on and did well at the school. But a person at the yeshiva whose title was “guidance counselor,” went to his parents and told them that “people like Michael are not intended to go to university.”
This “guidance counselor” did more than tell his parents – he wrote a letter to all the schools to which Stein was applying, sharing with them the same message he had delivered to Stein’s parents.
Luckily, New York University judged Stein on his merits, and as proof of the correctness of its decision, Stein graduated number one in his class.
Jay Ruderman, Morton Ruderman’s son, runs the family foundation now. He said it was somewhat fortuitous that his family decided to focus its philanthropy on disability.
“What happened was, our family was part of a large education initiative in the Boston Jewish community, and we realized that children with disabilities are excluded from the Jewish education system,” Ruderman told The Jewish Press.
“My father, Morton Ruderman was someone who believed very strongly that no one in the Jewish community should be excluded. While the disabled constitute the largest minority in the world,” Ruderman said, “Yet it is one area where most people still think segregation is okay.”
Ruderman was particularly pointed with respect to parts of the American Jewish community: “We’re all about this big tent, when in truth we really are still a very exclusionary society.”
“Giving up on 20 percent of the Jewish population,” – it is estimated that 20 percent of the general population is disabled – “means that we are missing the boat when we talk about Jewish continuity. And for every disabled child, we are also telling the family members of that child that we don’t care about them, either,” Ruderman said.
When asked about the inaugural Ruderman Award in Inclusion being given to Michael Stein, Ruderman was clearly pleased.
“Michael Stein is the right person to be the first recipient of this award. Because now he really is a representative of the Ruderman Family Foundation. He is a mensch and he is a leader, inside and outside of the Jewish community,” Ruderman said.
“I’ve met Michael Stein several times over the years, and I am only sorry my father never got to meet him, because I know he would have really loved that.”