“Whosoever preserves a single soul of Israel, scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world.”
I have known this quote from Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 since literally before I can remember, which is to say that I literally do not remember a time before I knew it. I even sang it as a child in a catchy tune at summer camp. And, while the intellectual idea of the limitless value of one human life is a concept with which I have been comfortable since I was a teenager, I think that I sometimes lose it in my work.
As a consultant to corporations and nonprofits, and a former federal official, having the greatest impact for the most people is a watchword, and it should be. And yet for all the talk of maximizing numbers, it’s nice to have a wake-up call about the power of helping an individual.
I have been privileged, since I moved to Boston, to have multiple interactions with the work of the Ruderman Family Foundation. I have been honored to write, honored to consult, and honored to share whatever knowledge I have to contribute to important work. Because I am something of a policy wonk and a technocrat, much of this discussion has been big picture.
Last week, however, I had the opportunity to experience the work of the Foundation through a different lens. I had the dual experiences of my first meeting as a member of the Jewish Services Committee of Jewish Vocational Services in Boston, under whose auspices is found the RFF sponsored Transitions to Work Program, and of attending Sweet Sounds, the annual Gala of Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, another program made possible by the Foundation.
In both situations, I heard deeply moving personal narratives from parents whose children’s lives had been completely transformed by these programs, from parents on the Jewish Services Committee whose son had transitioned from dependence to employment, to the moving story of Gateways parents who had relocated from New York so that their daughter with significant disabilities could have the Jewish education that was such a deeply cherished value for them.
Two lives in their own way saved. Twice the entire world saved. To hear these stories, to feel these stories, one cannot think that they were anything less.
We continue to strive for systemic change. I would like to see comprehensive employment programs like Transitions replicated throughout the country. Even more, I feel that the work of making Jewish education and Jewish heritage accessible and available to all Jews is a sacred mission, and that the Jewish world should be committed to expansion of Gateways style programs and services to its every level and facet as a moral imperative. But these are big picture goals, and focus exclusively on them risks of securing the tremendous power of each individual experience.
So I honor the work of the RFF, as do so many, because of the cumulative transformative effect on the lives of Jews with disabilities. But, I also honor it, and others like it, for the incalculable value of each life so transformed. There is more to be done, and I have great confidence that the work will continue, but at this moment, I honor all of the worlds already saved. Kol hakavod.