Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Shira Ruderman, Executive Director of the Ruderman Family Foundation, a private family foundation that invests in three primary areas of focus: advocating for and advancing the inclusion of people with disabilities throughout our society, strengthening the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community, and modeling the practice of strategic philanthropy worldwide.
1. What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?
I wish I knew philanthropy is a life journey that you cannot get separated from. I view it like parenthood, you learn as you go. Philanthropy makes you recognize your passions, skills, views on life.
I’ve gained an understanding for how wide the world of philanthropy really is, for how much more impactful philanthropy can be compared to how society perceives it, and for the complexity of the work and professionalism required to undertake it.
2. What is your current greatest professional challenge?
The challenges I face are divided among few aspects: family harmony, family legacy, operational as an executive, and keeping balance and separation between my professional and personal life.
On the professional side, the primary challenge is to keep identifying the right issues and right partnerships that will yield the greatest results and impact. It’s hard work. How do you master the art of constantly evaluating what area of need is most important and meaningful for society? How do you make philanthropy relevant and create practices that people will believe in? How do you do good and do it well?
Regarding the family aspect — how do we keep three generations engaged, how do we do that in a way that makes everyone feel valued, what is our legacy, and how do we pass it on for our kids?
These two challenges — the family and professional aspects — live side by side, and I cannot disconnect them. At the same time, they don’t compete with each other.
3. What inspires you most about your work?
That it’s never enough. That I can always do more and better. That as much as my days are long and complex, I am not getting tired of my “job” as people expect me to be. That I constantly find myself thinking, dreaming. I meet a lot of interesting and talented people. I wake up every day and feel lucky to be doing what I’m doing. I’m not going to work; the work is part of who I am, and this keeps me on my toes.
It’s also about the impact of the work itself and the opportunity to exceed everyone’s expectations. Most things the Foundation has done through partnerships, advocacy, internal programs, and beyond, started as our ideas and most people did not believe in them. This motivated me and us, as a Foundation, to prove them wrong and to accomplish our goals.
4. How does your gender identity inform your work?
Our gender identity impacts us every day. For me, I cannot separate my gender identity from my day-to-day work, from my choices and my management style. Through my career, I felt that I needed to have a balance between proving myself as a young woman and not making gender my main reason for success or having challenges. I believe that if you are good enough, if you believe in yourself, you will succeed. I made an internal decision that I will always choose to have women in positions of power in every place where I will be involved — as a funder, professional, lay leader, and mother.
Of course, there were moments over the years when being a woman created challenges for me. Walking into a room of executives or decision-makers and being the only woman can be exhausting at times. You constantly need to prove yourself. But I don’t regret those experiences at all. I think those moments made me stronger and more assertive.
5. Do you think your gender identity has affected your career?
When you’re aware of issues like gender, inclusion, and accessibility, it affects some of your choices. For my staff at the Foundation, I chose to have a strong woman next to me from day one. If I believe in women, I like to show it through actions, not just words.
6. How can philanthropy support gender equality?
Women aren’t lacking empowerment in most situations today — we’re lacking presence. The numbers don’t show women in enough positions with decision-making responsibility. At the same time, women are in the majority from a population perspective and in the future, research shows that the majority of wealth will be held by women.
While the statistical trends themselves will make an impact, philanthropy can be more aware of the need for gender equality and exhibit best practices in hiring. The philanthropic sector has the ability to encourage and inspire women by supporting programs and educating the public in a way that demonstrates how equity can be best practiced.
The world of philanthropy is focusing on women’s “empowerment,” but then you get the feeling that advancement for women requires a compromise. I want this prosocial change to become more organic. Empowerment is limited in impact if you don’t incorporate other criteria. We need to make sure that equality will come across in all aspects of our lives and in a variety of positions, not as a result of compromises or lowering the bar but rather as a result of our achievements, abilities, and skills.
7. In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equality movements taking us?
We’ll see more and more women in leadership positions. It’s already happening. It’ll become more natural than unique. Today, it’s still unique. Hopefully, in the future, having women in leadership positions will be more organic in all sectors. That would lead to a fairer society with more harmony.
Today, my daughter sees my lifestyle and tells me, “I don’t want to be you. You have to be everywhere all the time and be good at everything. It’s non-stop.” In 10 years, I hope that more balance can bridge gender gaps. It’s about creating equal opportunities. And equal does not mean women have to do everything all the time. Women need to be understood as equal, but different. Women often need to choose between pushing off starting a family or pushing off their career. As a sector whose decisions are driven by values, philanthropy can offer a conversation about balance, and how society and its values feed gender imbalance. A healthier society would prioritize equal opportunity and place it at the center of its decision-making processes.
About Shira Ruderman: Shira Ruderman is a professional philanthropist and social activist. She serves as the Executive Director of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Shira received an Honorary Doctorate from Haifa University and Brandeis University, and holds an M.A. in Public Policy and a B.A. in Education from Hebrew University. She also served 3 years as a commander in the Intelligence Unit of the Israeli Army. In 2016, both she and Jay Ruderman were chosen as a pair of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by the Jerusalem Post and in 2014 she was chosen as one of 100 most influential women in Israel by the Nashim Journal. Shira is married to Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, and they currently live in Boston with their four children. Follow Shira on Facebook @ShiraRuderman
About The Ruderman Family Foundation: The Massachusetts-based Foundation furthers its mission within the Jewish communities in Boston and beyond, based on the mission and values of founder Morton E. Ruderman. The Rudermans followed the pattern of many philanthropic families—starting with generous check-writing at the kitchen table and quickly moving into strategic investment. Founder and successful businessman, Morton E. Ruderman, had long been giving back to the Jewish community in Boston. In the early 2000s, Mort decided to make a major gift to local Jewish day schools. When they learned about the absence of children with disabilities in their classrooms, the family felt this systematic exclusion was an affront to their Jewish values. They agreed to focus on correcting this injustice and from the beginning understood their commitment to the inclusion of children and adults with disabilities as a social justice imperative. To learn more about the Foundation, visit their website here.
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